Saturday, May 1, 2010

Tribeca: "Just Like Us"

One of the most interesting new forms of nonfiction film is the “comic-doc exploration,” in which a stand-up comic and social commentator uses the tools of the documentary film and his own sense of humor to cook up a dish more funny and conventionally entertaining than your average essay film. Bill Maher took on organized religion in Religulous, Chris Rock investigated black hair issues in Good Hair, and now Egyptian stand-up comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed (one of the stars of Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show and The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour) explores American and Middle Eastern relations (and the place of comedy within those relationships) in Just Like Us, a slender but enlightening travelogue of his trip through the Middle East with an international group of comedians.

He begins the film with some of his own background, explaining the importance of humor and independence within his family. We then follow him on the road with his comic friends—a shifting group of comedians that include Omid Dajalili (star of the Tribeca hit The Infidel), In Living Color alum Tommy Davidson, The Wedding Ref host Tom Papa, and Ahmed’s Wild West Comedy Show co-star Sebastian Maniscalco. The crew starts in the United Arab Emirates, “the melting pot of the Middle East,” where there are some issues with profanity—worried about the local standards (he’s just finished serving out a year-long boycott from the UAE), Ahmed urges his fellow comics to “think of it like a Tonight Show set,” an instruction which Whitney Cummings and Dajalili almost immediately screw up.

From there it’s on to Beirut, where standards are far more lax (the city has adopted the “what happens in ___, stays in ____” slogan from Las Vegas), and then to Saudi Arabia, where the comics are escorted to the show by a Harley Davidson chapter and fear that the actual “religious police” may show up to shut them down. Next is Ahmed’s family’s homeland of Egypt, where “everyone wants to be a comic” (several small children end up crashing his set, just to get on stage). There is also a charming sequence where he visits his relatives, and big laughs from plus-sized Greek comic Angelo Tsarouchas’s encounter with a camel.

Finally, the tour winds up at Comix in New York City, and a poignant encounter with an Egyptian man that Ahmed meets on the Staten Island Ferry—a newly unemployed fellow who reminds Ahmed very much of his father. Their conversation after the show (at which he and his family are Ahmed’s guests) is surprisingly touching; it says more with their honest conversation and heartfelt reactions than all of the frankly treacly narration (“you’re gonna see the Middle East like you’ve never seen it before”).

Just Like Us is briskly paced and snappily cut, even if it does feel at times like a home movie (which, well, it kind of is). Ahmed gets his points across suitably in the abbreviated 72 minute running time, though I wish he would have padded it out with a bit more of the stand-up material—these are funny folks, and we barely hear from some of them. Still, running too short is a criticism that can be lobbed at very few films these days; smart and wickedly entertaining, Just Like Us is a funny, thoughtful treat.

"Just Like Us" screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

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