In the sweet-natured comic drama “Whatever Lola Wants,” a naive American woman travels to Cairo to find a former love but ends up pursuing a passion for belly dancing and discovering her true self. In his English-language debut, Paris-based Moroccan helmer Nabil Ayouch (“Mektoub,” “Ali Zaoua”) aims to provide a corrective to Mideast-set Hollywood pics full of bloodshed and bombs, but ends up relying on some other stereotypes instead. However, despite a considerable number of cringe-inducing moments early on, the sheer brio of the heroine’s cross-cultural antics will win over auds by the end.
Set for an April opening in Paris, “Lola” also reportedly had several Mideast suitors after its Dubai fest world preem.
A perky, petite blonde from Wisconsin, 25-year-old Lola (Laura Ramsey, like a younger Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones” mode) spends mornings as a temporary New Yorks postal worker and rushes to auditions and dance classes in the afternoons. Evenings are spent with best friend Yussef (Achmed Akkabi), an Egyptian waiter who comes off as a gay cliche.
Another Egyptian enters her life in the form of hunky MBA student Zach (Assad Bouab) whose Fifth Avenue penthouse just happens to be on her delivery route. Wooing her with some stock dialogue (“You have the eyes and face of a gazelle”), he also provides the proverb that becomes pic’s main lesson: the greater one’s desire, the more one finds strength.
When Zach unexpectedly returns to Cairo, Lola impulsively gives chase, only to discover romance is an altogether different thing in the Middle East. As one character astutely comments, “When a European is in love, he gets married. When an Arab is in love, he marries someone else.”
Enraptured by Cairo, Lola decides to track down legendary dancer Ismahan (Carmen Lebbos) and ask for lessons. But Ismahan now lives as a recluse, her career ended after an extramarital affair.
Pic’s most engaging moments come from the dance scenes: Lola trying out her moves at a sleazy nightclub, making a first pro appearance before 600 guests at a glitzy wedding and, finally, making a triumphant run onstage at the storied Nile Tower.
Ramsey, a real-life Midwesterner but with no dance experience, spent six months in the Mideast training for her role. As characters keep noting, “she’s pretty good — for an American,” which translates to not exactly the real thing.
After a low-budget look for New York, the later scenes (with Morocco mostly standing in for Egypt) teem with life and texture. Talented Arab cast, assembled from all over the region, registers well in English. Lebanese Lebbos, in particular, makes a strong and dignified impression.
Apart from Lola’s ridiculous attire of knickers and boots as she explores Cairo streets, rest of tech package is fine.