Just Like Us

An ambitious revue film with a two-pronged mission: making Western audiences laugh and exploring why Mideast audiences might not.

With:
(Arabic, English dialogue)

Offering a glimpse at how the comedy sausage gets made, “Just Like Us” is an ambitious revue film with a two-pronged mission: making Western audiences laugh and exploring why Mideast audiences might not. Featuring a group of intrepid entertainers bringing their often bawdy routines to Islamic countries, “Just Like Us” is funny, thoughtful and, with its quasi-travelogue voiceover by helmer-comedian Ahmed Ahmed, best suited for a cable outlet that won’t cut the vulgarity upon which so much depends.

Blithely barging into some very delicate territory, “Just Like Us” is built on the proposition that laughter is a universal language, even as it more or less debunks that same concept. Not only are Dubai, Beirut, Riyadh and Cairo very different cities, but they have very different sensibilities; Egyptians, for instance, are well known for being hilarious. Who knew?

For the comedians — who include helmer Ahmed, lone female Whitney Cummings, the better-known Tommy Davidson and several comics of Arabic descent, all riffing on their ethnicity — hitting the stage requires a certain degree of preparation, adjustment of worldview and sensitivity regarding what words they can and can’t say in a given locale — most of which they promptly forget in an effort to get their audience to wet its pants.

Religion, however, really is a taboo subject for jokes. Ahmed (whose narration is far too bubbly and PBS-flavored) recalls having been banned in one Mideast country over a very mild Islamic reference, then sets out to get banned again. Cummings shows a nimble way of mixing comedy with Mideast-friendly sex; she rocks her female audience by pointing out that if they want to arouse their repressed Muslim men, they should take off a sock. Erik Griffin, on the other hand, tells a Jesus joke that would probably get him pilloried in the Midwest. If there’s something that really is universal, it may well be bad taste.

Ahmed, who was a key member of the similarly structured “Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show” (2006), keeps things moving, but relies on a lot of cliched visual embellishments — the time-lapse traffic shots that imply hurried travel from site to site; the backstage stills that imply vacation snapshots; and the unavoidably roaming stage cameras and audience shots that attempt a “real” concert experience but are all-too-obvious manipulations.

The comedy is the key to the film’s appeal, and some formidable talents, such as Omid Djalili, provide genuine laughs amid the feel-good sociology, solemn pronouncements and soft-pedal approach to very real differences between global perspectives. As Albert Brooks tried to say few years ago in “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”: Laugh, and the world doesn’t necessarily laugh with you. “Just Like Us” is best when it sticks to the hilarity, which it does pretty consistently.

Production values are perfectly adequate.

Just Like Us

Production: A Cross Cultural Entertainment presentation. Produced by Taylor Feltner, Matthew Blaine. Directed by Ahmed Ahmed.

Crew: Camera (color), Taylor Feltner; editors, Benedict X. Katsulis, Veronica Ruttledge; music, Omar Fadel, sound, Feltner, Pat Donahue. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Center, New York, April 10, 2010. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- Discovery.) Running time: 72 MIN.

With: (Arabic, English dialogue)

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