The formulaic qualities of the road movie are on display in “From A to B,” a sporadically amusing buddy pic that hits all the expected buttons. In his sophomore feature, helmer Ali F. Mostafa (“City of Life”) appears to be searching for a signature style, resulting in a visually uninteresting, narratively choppy film that would work better as a Web series, where various episodes could stand alone rather than be forced to sustain an entire movie. The plot, about three friends living in Abu Dhabi driving to Beirut, certainly has potential, and local play is likely to be strong, yet beyond A and B lies the empty quarter.
People familiar with the UAE’s privileged international lifestyle, heavily influenced by American consumerism and pop culture, will see much they recognize. P.E. instructor Omar (Fadi Rifaai) is in crisis: His wife, Arwa (Yosra El Lozy), is heavily pregnant, and he reflects on his less responsible past when he, Ramy (Shadi Alfons) and Yousef (standup comic Fahad Al Butairi) were best buds. In 2006, their mate Hady was killed during the 2006 Lebanon War, and Omar looks to heal the rift that drove the friends apart following the funeral. What better way than a road trip to Beirut, timed to coincide with New Year’s and Hady’s birthday?
Egyptian Ramy fancies himself an online activist, but is really a mama’s boy who tweets about social justice from the comforts of home. Yousef, rechristened Jay, is a half-Saudi, half-Irish DJ who can laze about knowing his father will pick up the bills, and Omar is the estranged son of the Syrian ambassador. All three share a lack of ambition and an ulterior motive for going to Beirut.
Their first stop is Saudi Arabia, where they get arrested after cops spy them in what appears to be compromising positions at their desert campsite. In Jordan, Yousef is attracted to Samantha (Madeline Zima), driving to Petra with a friend, but in one of the funnier plot twists, things don’t work out.
Omar discovers that Syrian hotel waitress Shadya (Leem Lubany) was Hady’s last g.f.; when her hometown of Daraa gets bombed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, he convinces his pals they need to detour and take her there. Soon after crossing the border, they get pulled over by a couple of cops (cameos by stars Ali Suleiman and Khaled Abol Naga), who themselves want out. Then they’re kidnapped by a rebel commander (Samer Al Masry), and wake up to the horrors of the country’s civil war.
Mostafa and his scripters aim to give the generic features of the genre a little more specificity than usual, but the whole has a hybrid quality that only fitfully translates into anything genuinely funny. The pic has a few laughs, a few serious moments and the usual male bonding, but scenes often lack energy, and there’s little sense of flow between them. Michel Dierickx’s lensing is uniformly flat, and the Syrian sequences, which should offer a sobering, transformative counterpoint to the earlier lightheartedness, are so discreet that the desired emotional slap is neutered.
Song selections cover a range of the best Arab talent, from Lebanon’s Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan to Jordan’s JadaL, Algeria’s Souad Massi and Egypt’s Amr Diab, but their insertion into the soundtrack is clipped and clunky. Sound mix is problematic.