It used to be that when an actress took on a role for cred (remember Jessica Lange in ”Country”?), she did all that she could to tone down her glamour. Yet watching Angelina Jolie in the save-the-Third World romance Beyond Borders, it’s a challenge, truly, to fixate on anything past her hair. Jolie, as an American relief worker who keeps ditching her British husband to travel to increasingly unstable world disaster areas, sports a long, stringy, jet-black thatch that makes her look like the Morticia Addams of global compassion. This movie seems to be saying that if you’re a commercial actress concerned about shoring up your status in Hollywood, then cred, in all its Oscar-bid glory, is just a rinse job away.
In the dramatic opening of ”Beyond Borders,” Nick Callahan, a renegade physician played by the magnetic Clive Owen, crashes a posh British charity function, where he takes center stage and shames everyone for using world-relief donations as an act of disguised vanity. Owen delivers this speech with lacerating conviction, yet Nick’s message would be more potent if it didn’t make a mockery of the entire movie that followed. Inspired by Nick, Jolie’s Sarah Jordan, one of the party revelers, throws off her liberal-chic ways to join him in Ethiopia, Cambodia, and, finally, Chechnya. Tending to bone-thin infants, she’s supposed to embrace what care and sacrifice truly mean, yet the whole romantic premise of ”Beyond Borders” is that what really lights her fire is being around Nick, even if she has to journey to famine-ravaged hellholes to do it.
”Beyond Borders” isn’t a travesty, exactly (there’s a high-tension showdown with Khmer Rouge thugs), yet in an age when catastrophic hot zones are embedded in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s proof that the ”Zhivago”/”Reds”/”English Patient” school of ”world cataclysm as amorous backdrop” may no longer be viable, at least as applied to contemporary crises. Owen proves that he can smolder as enticingly as any matinee idol, but Jolie, in this movie at least, has exactly two expressions: blank wistfulness and blank dismay. She reduces the tides of history to one more raided tomb.