A modern-day Sisyphus, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) finds himself condemned by tragedy to spend his days and nights alone pulling his coffee and donut cart through New York City’s bustling streets, his load a symbol of his inescapable sorrow. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart follows its forlorn protagonist—a former pop singer known in his native Pakistan as “the Bono of Lahore”—through his grueling dawn-to-dusk routine of lugging his stand and propane tank to and from his proscribed city corner, stacking muffins and prepping paper cups with teabags, trying to sell bootleg porn DVDs in his free time, and occasionally venturing out to nightclubs with his Westernized Pakistani friends.
Like that daily grind, his story of salvation sought and never attained is one of listless, bloodless tedium. Bahrani’s portrait of existential urban malaise posits a world in which Ahmad’s interpersonal interactions lead merely to further humiliation and misery, whether it be his socio-economically tense dealings with a Pakistani businessman (Charles Daniel Sandoval), his communication with the accusatory mother-in-law who won’t let him see his son, or his awkward relationship with Spanish newsstand vendor Noemi (Leticia Dolera) to whom he’s incapable of expressing his tentative romantic feelings. Its fatalism heightened by its moody depiction of midtown Manhattan as a place of cheerless nocturnal shadows and condescending daylight faces, the film occasionally alleviates its pessimism with brief moments of tenderness, such as Ahmad’s care for the tiny kitten that serves as a surrogate for his real offspring.
Shot in tight, intimate close-ups, the attending visuals often mirror the oppressive constrictiveness of both Ahmad’s cart confines and his weighty grief. Yet Man Push Cart‘s physical cinematographic proximity never elicits the empathy it intends, as its cold, omniscient perspective increasingly becomes akin to that of a scientist clinically watching a rat futilely search for a bite of cheese at the end of a maze. And finally, the filmmaker’s labored attempts to avoid trafficking in hope have the deleterious effect of casting nearly every scene as a disingenuous, pedantic example of the cosmos’s callous cruelty.