With its randy characters, frank depictions of male-female affection and generally liberal vibe, "Sleepless Nights" has rocked the world of Egyptian movies since its local premiere last year. Undeniably socially hip for an Arab pic, Egypt Oscar entry will pack 'em in across the Middle East and draw curious auds at cosmopolitan fests.

With its randy characters, frank depictions of male-female affection and generally liberal vibe, “Sleepless Nights” has rocked the world of Egyptian movies since its local premiere last year. That isn’t to say, though, that it’s a step forward artistically; indeed, the frantic coverage of four upscale Cairo couples all in crisis is little more than an exalted soap opera. Undeniably socially hip for an Arab pic, Egypt Oscar entry will pack ‘em in across the Middle East (in those nations where it’s permitted to screen) and draw curious auds at cosmopolitan fests.

With dogged efficiency, pic intros the couples, but in the context of their individual lives before they’re brought together — and then, torn apart. Recording studio whiz Sameh (Sherif Mounir) is a confirmed bachelor and currently entwined with biz woman Inas (Ola Ghanem).

Fourth birthday of car salesman pal Khaled’s (Fathy Abdel Wahab) son is upcoming, and Khaled cajoles Sameh to attend. Unlike the free Sameh, Amr (Ahmad Hilmi) is feeling the yank of a ball-and-chain from wife Farah (Hanan Tork), whose movie star mom reminds her son-in-law of her high expectations for him.

Unhappy with her husband Ali’s (Khaled Abol Naga) performance in bed and elsewhere, Moushira (Gihan Fadel) plans to divorce him, even though her more traditional brother Nabil (Ahmad Kamal) urges her to stay with him out of respect for the larger family.

Tensions rise as — in the kind of arch plot device that pockmarks the movie — Khaled accidentally leaves his cell phone on in a test-drive car. As he makes out with a female customer, it’s overheard by wife Perry (Mona Zaki), confirming her long-held suspicions of his serial infidelity.

Meanwhile, Moushira and Ali try to have sex after he returns from a business trip, but he flubs it as usual, while Sameh and Inas get hot and heavy in the shower (behind sufficiently opaque glass).

The birthday party brings everyone together, but instead of good cheer, the bash’s aftermath has each couple driven apart for various and not always credible reasons. Characters function in this scenario more like marionettes than authentically realized people, although the archetypes are so recognizable to the modernized Arab aud being addressed that “Sleepless Nights” begins to resemble nothing less than a Bollywood pic in Arabic, sans music.

The men, all long-time friends, decide to get away for a weekend to Alexandria on the Mediterranean while their women pout, and a certain sexist tone begins to infect the film that carries through to the end, when the couples — realizing how they miss each other — opt for reconciliation. Traditional marriage wins the day, conquering even Sameh, who celebrates during his wedding party.

The slant toward men, even though “Nights” hints early on at a slight feminist sympathy, extends to thesping. While the women appear directed toward tiresome one-note performances, the guys are given freer range, with Mounir scanning the full emotional range from happy to conflicted as a single guy who finally decides to tie the knot.

Until the camera is allowed outdoors in the third act, staging is almost entirely of interiors that tend to be overlit and generally suggest higher-budget tube production.

Sleepless Nights

Egypt

Production

An Arabia Co. for Production and Distribution release (in Egypt) of an ADL Group presentation. (International sales: Arabia Cinema Production and Distribution, Cairo.) Produced by Magdi Abdel Messih. Executive producer, Al-Alamiya for Television & Cinema. Directed by Hani Khalifa. Screenplay, Temer Habib; story, Habib.

Crew

Camera (Geyer color/Berlin), Ahmed Abdel El-Aziz; editor, Khaled Marie; music, Hesham Nazih; production designer, Emad el Kodari; sound (Dolby Digital); assistant director, Marie Badir. Reviewed on videotape at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 13, 2004. Running time: 129 MIN.

With

Sameh - Sherif Mounir Ali - Khaled Abol Naga Perry - Mona Zaki Farah - Hanan Tork Amr - Ahmad Hilmi Moushira - Gihan Fadel Khaled - Fathy Abdel Wahab Inas - Ola Ghanem Hamed El Mahdi - Samie Al-Adel Nawara - Raga El Geddaoui Nabil - Ahmad Kamal
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