United Nations scandal uncovered in generic potboiler that plays like ‘Diplomacy for Dummies’

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A title that sounds like a rejected script for “Pretty Little Liars” is only the beginning of “Backstabbing for Beginners’ ” problems.

Director Per Fly’s basic, by-the-numbers thriller pulls from the real-life story of the United Nations’ disastrous Oil-for-Food program, which blew up in a cloud of scandal in 2003. The idea was that Iraq, under the supervision of the United Nations, was allowed to sell a regulated amount of oil in order to purchase necessities such as food and medicine for its citizens. It resulted in one of the biggest financial scandals ever recorded, an embarrassment to all involved.

It’s difficult subject matter to wrangle and make palatable for mainstream audiences, and “Backstabbing for Beginners’ ” solution is to boil it down to a dull thriller whose big reveals are obvious to anyone who’s ever watched a movie where a conversation is recorded without one party being aware. You don’t need to know the specifics of Oil-for-Food; in this telling, the motivations and forces at work are plain as day.

Theo James (the “Divergent” movies) rings hollow as Michael Soussan, who takes a job at the U.N. following in the footsteps of his diplomat father, who was killed in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Further, the guy who previously had his job at the U.N. was killed on duty in Iraq. So much for job security.

Ben Kingsley is Pasha, Michael’s mentor, who shows him the ropes and barks profanities and is probably on the take. Lines of right and wrong, corrupt and just are blurred, but “Backstabbing for Beginners’” sins are more immediate. It fails to make its subject matter interesting.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Backstabbing for Beginners’

GRADE: C-

Rated R for language throughout, and some violence

Running time: 108 minutes

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