Anointed with the Best Foreign Film Oscar over a month before its U.S. release, Susanne Bier's "In a Better World" contains several troubled characters coping with profound life crises. That basic description, alongside the Danish filmmaker's track record with brooding tales of woe, sent the awards bells ringing months ago. Bier has done far more compelling work before, but the globe-spanning, life-affirming, morally upright trajectory of her latest accomplishment weakens its quality while sustaining its popularity. "In a Better World" is heavy, but it's also heavy-handed.
The main plot revolves around Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a world-class doctor dividing his time between family life in Denmark and social work at an African refugee camp. In the camp, Anton faces the troubled victims of gang violence, including raped and tortured women who have faced atrocities that make his home-life drama look downright simplistic. His estranged wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) struggles with her husband's constant absence while trying to help their 10-year-old son Elias (Markus Rygaard) cope with bullies at school. The story branches off in another direction when Elias finds a single friend in Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), a similarly alienated boy who defends Elias on the schoolyard. Christian has demons of his own, having recently lost his mother to cancer, a grievance he irrationally blames on his solemn father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen).
That's five characters and a lot of misery for them to share. Screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (whose previous credits include scripts for Bier's "Brothers" and "After the Wedding") ably spreads the conflict around, then pulls the various strands together for a tearful finale. While well-acted, these proceedings are also hugely transparent: Viewing third-world turmoil up close, Anton learns to appreciate how good he has it back home, while Elias and Christian find an outlet for their juvenile rage before concluding that their adolescent problems won't last forever.
Bier's top-notch craftsmanship moves things along at a brisk pace and audiences unbothered by the message-driven plot will be satisfied. But appreciating "In a Better World" without at least acknowledging its flimsy thematic makeup is tantamount to shrugging off the innumerable explosions that replace storytelling depth in the next "Transformers" sequel because, hey, they look cool.
With its mini-ensemble and interlocking dramas neatly calibrated to convey emotional depth, the acclaim for "In a Better World" is a symptom of "The 'Crash' Effect," so called for the absurd Oscar triumph of Paul Haggis' equally obvious -- although far more hyperbolically scripted -- vision of racial conflict in 2006. Give certain audiences a sentimental bone and they'll gnaw it to pieces, particularly if those audiences are Oscar voters. Thus, despite the late-season momentum for dark horse contender "Dogtooth," a marvelously provocative and uncharacteristically bleak entry into Oscar's inner circle, "In a Better World" was always at the front of the Best Foreign Film race, just ahead of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful."
Iñárritu benefited from The "Crash" Effect even before it technically existed, having made his overdone epic "Babel" around the same time that Haggis made "Crash." To be fair, "In a Better World" doesn't go to the same narrative extremes that Iñárritu tends to favor -- stuffing a million obvious twists into a single package and incessantly shaking it around. Less obviously manipulative, the success of the Bier movie is not an outrage. It's just unsurprising that a middling achievement would garner this vast aura of appreciation long before ticket-paying audiences have a chance to see it.
"In a Better World" gets particularly irksome when the script finds its way to a pair of handy dramatic twists that both take place late in the game. A near-death incident complicates the lives of Christian and Elias, while Anton faces the controversial task of treating an African gang leader responsible for murdering innocent civilians. To be fair, real life isn't shaped like drama, and the balance between these two parallel developments bears the mark of a skilled editor. That's enough to keep "In a Better World" from falling apart, but the two-hour experience amounts to more trouble than it's worth.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? On the basis of its Oscar and some strong critical reactions, "In a Better World" should attract strong numbers in limited release.
criticWIRE grade: B-
"In a Better World" opens Friday in L.A. and New York at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinemas.