Movies from the Middle East about religious bickering turning into violence are becoming more common than Tyler Perry joints. Now, comedies about that subject with a central message of female empowerment, those are a wee bit harder to find. Yet, that’s the difficult trick that writer/director/star Nadine Labaki attempts to pull out of her hat in Where Do We Go Now. It takes that regular stand up comedy conceit that the world would be infinitely less violent if run by women and runs with it, attempting to transform pretty serious, dark, and pertinent subject matter into gentle comedy with a none-too-subtle message of peace. The experiment almost works, with the movie predictably turning out a little too tonally inconsistent. However, the idea and effort are certainly noble, so the inconsistencies are easy to ignore for the sake of the intentions.
Labaki’s story takes place in an isolated Lebanese village. The small population does everything together even though they are split down the middle between Christians and Moslems with all of the irrational prejudices that implies (segregated cemeteries, childish name-calling, the occasional fistfight, etc). However, things are fairly peaceful overall until a small TV comes into the town brining with it controversial news stories that gets the whole down in a divided tizzy. Well, at least that’s true of all the men in town. The women recognize how ridiculous, petty, and tragic all this fighting can be, with a death toll that has mounted over time (at one point one of the eldest women in the community poignantly cries out, “”Do you think we exist simply to mourn you?” and gets nothing but chilly silence in response).
This being a painfully patriarchal community, the women’s feelings are never acknowledged. However, they all get together and realize that as a team, they can manipulate all of the men in the communities using the good old fashioned techniques that women have used for decades, primarily sex n’ food (men are a weak bread, there’s no denying it). Their plans start with staging fake miracles to bring the rivals together and when that doesn’t prove to be strong enough, they import a collection of Ukrainian belly dancers to keep all the men distracted and hold a communitywide party catered with hash-laced pastries to get everyone giggling together. All of the hate and conflict built up over several stressful weeks quickly melts away via the magical powers of soft drugs and bare midriffs.
It’s a fairly amusing little tale whipped up by Labaki and one that is well performed by a talented cast of established actors and civilians with intriguing faces. Unfortunately this kind of light comedy with dark themes is a very tricky combination to get right and seems just slightly out of reach of the Labaki who is only on her second film as a director. The first third of the story drags on far too long with very little indication that the film is in fact a comedy. Then when the women hatch their plan, the humor arrives in fairly broad and goofy set pieces that clash awkwardly with the serious drama surrounding them. Musical numbers about hash, slapstick physical gags, double takes from horny old men leering at scantily clad young women, Labaki leaves no clichéd comedy technique unexplored, at times desperately reaching back into the silent era for ideas. Sometimes the gags work (the unexpected hash n’ stripper party is pretty great), but the filmmaker is never quite seems as comfortable going for laughs as she does in staging the more serious sequences.
Where Do We Go Now is never quite as funny as it wants to be, but it can’t be entirely written off since the ideas involved aren’t exactly geared to belly laughs. Labaki is trying to make a point with all her pratfalls and those themes resonate strongly as do the intermittent dramatic sequences. Considering the origin of the production, it’s quite refreshing to see a practically feminist movie emerge and Labaki’s ideas about favoring female compassion in society over male dick-waving and ego-fueled fisticuffs is sound. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to find someone more adept at crafting comedy to help her with the screenplay because this could have been a fantastic little satire if the laughs were there. She didn’t find that funny co-conspirator though and in fairness, this isn’t the easies subject to mine for humor. In the end, Where Do We Go Now warrants a mild recommendation for concept and audacity alone even if it’s probably a better idea for a movie than an actual movie. A for effort, C- for execution. Just like my grade school gym class results.