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?
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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.