Ramin Bahrani's moody character study Man Push Cart follows the neo-realist travails of a depressed, grief-stricken vendor (Ahmad Razvi) content to fade anonymously into the urban bustle and white noise of New York City. Once upon a time, Razvi was a popular musician in Pakistan, but his perpetual scowl and dead-eyed stare betrays a lifetime of disappointments and unbearable loss. Razvi hustles muffins, coffee, and porn DVDs just to get by, but his luck seemingly takes a turn for the better when he strikes up tenuous friendships with a Pakistani yuppie who hires him to perform odd jobs, and a pretty Spanish translator (the luminous Leticia Dolera) reduced to working at a newsstand.
As a man in retreat from a world that has bruised him far too many times, Razvi gives a deeply internal performance that hints at bottomless depths of sadness. The tiny glimmers of hope in Razvi's life only make the inevitable disappointments all the more dispiriting. A quintessential New York movie, Man Push Cart is a solemn mood piece that hovers somewhere between bittersweet and despairing. When Razvi adopts an abandoned kitten, the symbolism is a little too on-the-nose (one lost stray looking after another), but affecting all the same.
Just how depressing is Man Push Cart? The death of Razvi's beloved kitten qualifies as only the third or fourth saddest aspect of the film. A Horatio Alger tale in reverse, the film follows a bleak riches-to-rags-to-even-shabbier-rags arc that mocks a country full of opportunities for those willing to start at the bottom and stay there indefinitely. Razvi begins the film with next to nothing, then proceeds to lose even that. Man Push Cart is so unrelentingly bleak at times that it feels like a parody of miserablism, but Bahrani's cinéma vérité approach and Razvi's sour magnetism keep the film grounded in reality. For all its melodramatic third-act flourishes—the showiest of which echoes The Bicycle Thief, an obvious inspiration—Man Push Cart remains quietly heartbreaking.