Review: Outsourced, 2006, dir. John Jeffcoat

This fall, NBC will introduce another addition to their Thursday line-up with workplace situation comedy series Outsourced. (Which also marks the third entry in said genre on their schedule. Take that as you will.) Outsourced appears to have its roots firmly entrenched in the comedy of programs like Britain’s mockumentary masterpiece The Office, as well as America’s own treatment of the UK series and subsequent twists and tweaks on the basic conceit of both, such as the excellentParks and Recreation. (In the interest of fairness, though, Parks and Recreation aired two years after NBC Ken Kwapis to write Outsourced‘s pilot, and so probably shouldn’t be considered a precursor to the upcoming program.) With this in mind, you may be surprised to learn that Outsourced‘s existence is primarily the responsibility of an unassuming, wonderful little comedy of the same name, released four years ago to a strong critical reception and starring Josh Hamilton and Ayesha Dharker.

How did I miss out on Outsourced? I almost feel criminal for admitting this, but I had never even heard of this film until my fiancee placed it in her Instant Queue on Netflix, and man am I glad that she did. Outsourced is a real pleasure of a movie about Todd, a call center manager (Hamilton), whose company outsources a number of jobs to India and sends him to a village outside of Bombay to train his replacement. His mission: Get the center’s average MPI (Minutes Per Incident; the length of time each customer call takes to resolve) down from 12 to an even 6. The punishment for failure: An indefinite tenure in India for Todd.

Todd’s Americanness naturally proves to be something of a roadblock as he attempts to acclimate himself to life in a foreign country; he gets himself pick-pocketed (twice, by the same child), he embarrasses himself with manners that are considered poor by Indian cultural propriety, and he misses the driver sent to him by Puro (Asif Basra), the future call center manager Todd is meant to train. As to be expected, Todd also actively resists the experience. He clearly wants nothing more than to be done with his job so he can go back home. He does the best that he can but constantly betrays the truth of his sentiment in his mannerisms and behavior: Here is a man absolutely in opposition of the position that he finds himself in. We can hardly blame Todd for his frustration– what would any of us do in his place?– but at the same time we can see him making things harder on himself.

Fortunately, his recalcitrance doesn’t last for very long: A chance encounter with another American in the same situation yields an insightful discussion about adjusting to Indian life. Simply give in to it, the man suggests. And counter to what most characters do in films about adapting to the customs of a culture not their own, Todd appears to take the advice to heart. During the celebration of Holi (which, incidentally, might well be the most awesome holiday celebrated on any continent in the world), Todd finds himself caught in a crossfire of colored powder and water. Puro attempts to shield the uninitiated Todd from tasting the rainbow; two handfuls of powder later, and the withdrawn businessman joins the fray with relish. In the aftermath of the festivities Todd bathes, with the other joyful participants, in the village lake. He emerges from the murky water a changed man. The symbolism may be a bit too on the nose, but it feels appropriate in spite of itself, and Hamilton sells the moment perfectly.

There exists a fine line in movies like Outsourced that the story has to maintain; going too far over the line can make the result feel hokey at best, and offensive at worst. “White person reacts to the customs of a culture not their own” is a theme that can be found in an enormous number of movies dating as far back as the 1960’s, and so many entries in this genre of cultural clashing read as forced, stilted, and unnatural; this to say nothing of how painfully embarrassing it can be to sit through films where white American males find themselves treated with reverence generally reserved for deities by the foreign people they’ve been sent to integrate with. Outsourced, happily, avoids all of these particulars thanks to the good sense of John Jeffcoat’s script (co-written by George Wing) and direction, both of which treat Todd’s character shift in a very believable fashion. Todd doesn’t trade his Americanness for Indianness, but he does allow himself to learn a few valuable lessons during his stay. He’s inspired by his experiences instead of being totally and inwardly transformed. The same is true of the crew he trains; Todd doesn’t exert his influence over them with a strong arm and whip them into red-blooded faux-Americans, but his presence does have a palpable (and arguably positive) impact on their lives. It’s a celebration of multi-culturalism without a trace of disingenuousness or chest-thumping jingoism that might serve to establish one culture as being “better” than the other; instead, we see the positives that can be mined from both alongside their various quirks and cons.

Outsourced also appears to hold a firm, if muted, stance against corporations and corporate behavior. Todd’s boss, even when a world away in America, represents a pervasive presence over the course of the film; unctuous, oily, unpleasant, Dave (Matt Smith) connives and betrays at the turn of the hat from behind a smile that he hopes you’ll believe is amicable. As Todd gradually grows accustomed to his new home, and as he fights less and less against his relocation, his battle with the company grows more pitched. Eventually, their conflict impels Todd to choose between keeping his dignity and character intact or reaching the heights of success that he has been working towards for years. We come to realize that Todd’s true struggle is against David and the temptations that he places in Todd’s path. The film hints at the corporate world’s inability to provide actual sustaining happiness; while we’ve heard that money cannot buy that particular commodity before, the trope is played here with a welcome lack of melodramatic bluster.

Holding all of this down are the leading performances by Hamilton and Dharker, which are down to earth, genuine, and delightfully nuanced. Hamilton executes a tricky balancing act with Todd by keeping the character sympathetic while also making him vulnerable and open to our criticisms of his initial attitude. Todd is obviously not a bad person; he’s simply making the best of an admittedly unfair situation. Over time Todd grows into the kind of character we can wholly embrace, and that Hamilton does such great work defining his less-than-admirable qualities makes the resolution of his arc incredibly gratifying. His performance could be described as reigned-in and subdued, especially when stacked next to Dharker’s portrayal of Asha, a pretty young woman blessed with a wealth of ambition and intelligence who works in the call center. Todd takes a liking to her almost immediately, and so do we; Asha is clever, insightful, cheery, and dauntless in her efforts to break the ties of her society that bind her to a life role that she does not want to fulfill.

I’ve never seen Dharker in a film before, and I hope that I get to see her in many more. She’s a veritable font of charm and charisma, so much so that by Outsourced‘s end we almost want to see her succeed more than Todd. The chemistry that these actors share with one another lift the film up, elevating it above being merely a good film about American corporate culture and globalization to something really special. I can see myself recommending Outsourced without their presence. It’s engaging, humorous, and directed with a deft hand, but the central characterization at play here lends a great deal of verve to the film. Still, outside of Dharker and Hamilton lies an engaging picture with quietly presented ideas and ideals that’s well-worth watching on its own,; it’s the best case scenario of multiculturalism done properly, and you should make an effort to check it out even if NBC’s upcoming program doesn’t fall in your aesthetic wheelhouse.

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