As Ugly Americans go, Manhattan corporate attorney Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) has a lot going for him. He's a handsome dude with perfectly symmetrical features, a toned bod we get to peek at all but naked, and facile charm to burn.
He also happens to be the son of Chinese immigrants, but he has brushed aside his heritage along with anything else that might get in the way of making partner. So when his bosses suddenly banish Sam to the boondocks — as he sees it — of Shanghai to open a new office for the firm, he complies in a mighty sulk. (Never mind that he's been dispatched to a city widely regarded as one sitting on the cutting edge of global capitalism.)
The rest, as you will have guessed, is a humbling storm of adversity that will teach this arrogant young hipster — who begins his stint by alienating just about everyone who might help him — how to be a mensch. Snobbery and prejudice will be shed, along with ambition. Love will walk in, along with an improved attitude and refreshed ethnic pride.
Never mind the secondhand plot, or the familiar, kinetically shot lunar cityscape, with its gleaming skyscrapers, grimy back alleys and ever-present construction. Written and directed by Daniel Hsia — an American who's worked mostly in television — with a brash fizz and pop that matches the brittle flair of Sam's new home, Shanghai Calling is a Sino-American collaboration with made-for-TV production values aimed at young audiences on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Market-driven it may be, but this warmhearted frippery refuses to wear a long face. Far from moaning that our brave new connected world is going straight to hell, Shanghai Calling envelops that world in a big, goofy bear hug. The action turns on the apparent theft of the blueprint for a post-Apple cellphone that restores the retro click of typing.
Hsia embraces the crazy quilt of tradition and modernity that is 21st-century Shanghai. Where Sofia Coppola's far artier Lost in Translation was constantly inviting us to chortle at the craziness of modern Japan, Shanghai Calling is as playful with Western misconceptions about the East as it is with the pretensions of New China, without neglecting the price paid for progress by its workers.
Sam does get to root out graft and corruption. But it's not where he thinks it is, and he doesn't do it alone; it takes a village full of the very misfits he's disparaged and insulted, all of whom turn out to be a lot more streetwise than he is.
The movie doesn't so much dissolve stereotypes as toy with them until they're defanged. Sam assumes that his gorgeous, sloe-eyed assistant (played by Zhu Zhu, a polymath who also models and hosts MTV China) is hopelessly in love with his awesome self. A mysterious private-eye-or-whatever named Awesome Wang (Geng Le) shows up to thicken the plot, along with the usual posse of wacky American expats, among them the backslapping, self-appointed mayor of Shanghai's American Quarter (Bill Paxton) and an American inventor (Alan Ruck) who seems a tad too eager to show off his mastery of Chinese calligraphy.
And let's not forget the statutory mettlesome blonde (however fetchingly played by Scrubs' Eliza Coupe) with "love interest" written all over her.
Shanghai Calling doesn't aspire to fresh insight, let alone profundity. But it's nice to see the American migration narrative get out of the house for some fresh air. And if this irresistibly high-spirited confection performs well worldwide, I have a feeling we'll be seeing it cloned all over the global movie map. As copycat pop trendsetting goes, we could do worse.