With xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments riding high in the American saddle, and an “Arab Spring” struggling not to wilt under the dog days of summer, comedian-filmmaker Ahmed Ahmed weighs in with a documentary that displays all the social relevance and profundity of a soon-to-be canceled sitcom. Just Like Us, the Egyptian-American jokester’s Middle East concert travelogue makes the daring claim that people everywhere are united through humor and their love of laughter. This, of course, opens the door to predictably stale comic routines on women, moms, family meals and cab drivers.
Hey, Ahmed, every culture loves a good fart joke too. I don’t recall that healing ethnic hatred in Bosnia or Rwanda.
If you’re going to claim comedy can change the world you’re going to have to do a helluva lot better than the harmless hack routines in Just Like Us. Whether it’s comedy or social critique, context is everything — and Ahmed’s film provides painfully little.
The road to hell is paved with uninspired movies like this. Ahmed’s assertion that progressive ideals evolve from a culture’s ability to laugh at itself is thinly presented and even less convincingly supported by the successful Middle Eastern comedy tour he spotlights.
While it’s encouraging to see that his cadre of comics are finding success in that part of the world, his film papers over very serious challenges to his central premise. For one, jokes about sex, religion and politics are legally forbidden in many of the countries he tours. As you might guess, this makes for some pretty tame (and lame) comic material. As an interesting side note, Ahmed is the only Arabic cut-up on the tour … and clearly the strongest of the lot.
There are moments when the comedians violate the rules of their host country and, in the doc’s most interesting moments, friction arises. But Ahmed doesn’t use these encounters to deepen the conversation. Instead, he portrays them as minor inconveniences. Nothing better illustrates the film’s lack of meaningful inquiry than female comedian Whitney Cummings — whose very presence challenges some Arabic attitudes about women — and her canned comments about the hajib being “empowering” to Arabic women. What might have been an opportunity to address policies of cultural sexism are sidelined by unenlightened platitudes.
The truth is, Just Like Us is too timid to engage its subject with any depth, insight or sense of history. The best Ahmed can offer is a montage of ignorant Westerners expressing their views about Muslims and Arabs. (Needless to say it’s pretty dire.) I guess that shows his enlightened ability as an American to laugh at other Americans. If only he could apply that same standard to Beirut, Riyadh, Dubai and Cairo, which get little more than a home slideshow treatment, with smiling, happy Arabs and “spontaneous” encounters with Ahmed’s stage pals.
While Ahmed’s “Kumbaya” intentions are probably noble, his efforts are anything but. After watching 70-odd minutes of relentlessly upbeat messaging (most of it unearned) it would be fair to uncharitably accuse Just Like Us of simply being disingenuous and self-serving. Which is the ultimate shame. The cineplex could use a convincing, serious-minded and galvanizing investigation of multiculturism to answer Michael Bay’s latest robo-fueled ethnic bashfest.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).