If the fake-moviemaking ploy from “Argo” were repurposed to disguise a drug-smuggling caper, it might inspire a comedy like “Very Big Shot,” a slyly amusing feature debut from Lebanese director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya. Beginning as a hard-boiled crime drama, the movie gradually reveals a more satirical intent, commenting on what it sees as untapped potential in the Lebanese film industry. (The director Georges Nasser, whose 1957 film “Ila Ayn” is said to have been the first feature from Lebanon to screen at Cannes, briefly appears as himself.) Whether this smile-inducing but not gut-busting pic itself lives up to that breakout potential will depend on the varied critical reaction across territories.
The plot centers on Ziad (Alain Saadeh), a Beirut drug dealer; in a rough-hewn prologue that starts in medias res, his brother, Jad (Wissam Fares), takes the rap for him after a killing. When Jad is released five years later, Ziad wants to leave behind their lifestyle to open a restaurant with him, an idea that has Jad less than enthused. Meanwhile, a botched drug-transport run likely intended as a setup has left Ziad with a stash of the amphetamine Captagon. It would be enough to set them up comfortably, if only Ziad had a way of transporting it.
Inspiration arrives in the form of Charbel (Fouad Yammine), a filmmaker who regularly buys cocaine from the family’s pizza-delivery joint. In an early scene, Charbel complains that Lebanon’s movie industry has “many talents, but only few opportunities to explore.” (“Name one actor here that can be compared to Sylvester Stallone,” a tablemate scoffs.) Ziad catches a glimpse of Charbel’s latest documentary and, from it, learns of an Italian production company that purportedly attempted to smuggle drugs in film canisters. When Ziad gives it a shot, he discovers that he needs a permit to avoid a scan.
And so “Very Big Shot” becomes a movie about the making of a movie, with Ziad funding Charbel’s passion-project screenplay as a front. All of the filmmaking work is designed to ensure that their deception raises as few suspicions as possible, Ziad insists, though Bou Chaaya and Saadeh (a fierce, deadpan presence who also co-wrote) make comic hay out of continually raising the shoot’s stakes and professionalism.
Drawing on his enforcement skills, Ziad warms to the role of a hardass producer, mandating casting and script changes that, a la “Bullets Over Broadway,” may actually be improvements. The awkward complications — the film at one point stars Charbel’s unfaithful wife (Alexandra Kahwaji) and Ziad’s other brother, Joe (Tarek Yaacoub), her lover, as a couple — provide “Very Big Shot” with most of its funniest moments.
Somewhat awkwardly proportioned, “Very Big Shot” eventually broadens its satirical aims to encompass violence and politics in Lebanon. (The provocative final note, as abrupt as the opening, may have a specific local resonance that doesn’t quite play abroad.) Drab, desaturated visuals hint at a work of harsh realism — a bit of misdirection, considering the movie’s ultimate goals. By contrast, Bou Chaaya leans too heavily on a repetitive, jaunty score by Michel Elefterides.