Readers of this column probably know that I’m no fan of Egyptian director Khaled Youssef (a.k.a. master of the slums), the most deceptively serious and sensationalist of the nation’s top filmmakers.
His last cinematic insult, “Dokan Shehata (Shehata’s Store) was easily the worst film I saw last year. Youssef was speciously heralded as the voice of the marginalized classes, the common people and slum dwellers solely by virtue of his 2005 hit “Heina Maysara – a rare highlight in his 10-year career.
It seems obvious now that the slums, a world he has exhausted over subsequent works, are a mere niche for a director who acquired fame and fortune for the great controversy that greeted every film he produced in the past three years.
An accomplished filmmaker, I emphasized in my “Shehata review, Youssef is not.
Yet the Egyptian public evidently remains infatuated with Youssef Chahine’s protégé. The quality of his films is inconsequent; people will flock to watch any cinematic rubble stamped with Youssef’s name.
The latest example is “Kalemne Shokran (Call Me, Please), a film whose appropriate title should’ve been “Please Don’t Bother.
“Please Call Me is Youssef’s second foray into comedy since 2001’s “Gawaz Be Qarar Gomhoury (Married by Presidential Decree). Although both pictures are strangely informed by a pro-government sentiment, “Call Me, Please is the clear distinctive work: a boorish, asinine and impertinent collection of sketches tied together by a tired plot that never engages the audience.
Even in a different genre like comedy, Youssef persists on practicing his favorite hobby: forcing petty social and political nuances upon the tattered fabric of his story, attempting, once again, to coat his film with undeserved significance. The result is another entry in the director’s growing canon of hideously-looking pictures.
Amr Abdel Gelil recycles his comical shenanigans from both “Heina Maysara and “Shehata . Ibrahim Toshka is an aspiring, and not particularly skilled, actor who can’t utter a single proper sentence, who works in Cairo’s expansive informal section operating an assortment of illegal businesses including an infinitesimal call center and a stolen cable TV network.
Toshka’s childhood cronies are equally despoiled, inhabiting a dilapidated place where people with principles have become an endangered species. His partners in crime include Orabi (Sabry Fawaz), a religious-looking baker who uses his misleading appearance to establish trust with his customers. In reality, Orabi is a sexually-frustrated, pot-smoking negligent father, as dishonest as all members of the sullied lot.
There’s also Saeed Ka’aba (Misery), played by Ramy Gheet, an unemployed, down-on-his-luck college graduate engaged to Toshka’s sister; and then there’s Atef (Shady Khalaf), the owner of the district’s coffee shop/call center and a part-time pimp entrusted with the role of the story’s indirect antagonist.
Ghada Abdel Razek, the actress you love to hate, is Ashgan, a semi-prostitute snatching any opportunity to shed off her kit. Ashgan returns to the neighborhood after enduring a disastrous marriage to violent mobster Salah Maarek (Combat), played in a cameo by buffed Maged El-Masry in all his Vin Diesel glory. Ashgan goes back to her former lover, Toshka, with her seven-year-old child whom she claims is Toshka’s son. Her reemergence spoils Toshka’s wedding plan to Abla (Dalia Ibrahim), the neighborhood’s wholesome sweetheart.
Other characters worthy of note are Fagr (former Miss Egypt Horriya Farghali), who makes a living stripping to strangers in chat rooms, and a Lebanese TV presenter (Caroline de Oliveira) running a staged reality program exposing the ills of Egypt.
“Call Me, Please is a standard comedy fraught with sexual innuendo, contrived situations of zero impact on the loose drama and daft one-liners that, on few occasions, do admittedly hit the mark.
It’s also a film littered with stereotypical characters, lazy truisms and bouts of overdramatic turns that reveal Youssef’s addiction to didactic messages. And the less said about the overly predicable conclusion that climaxes into a bizarre, western shootout, the better.
The in-your-face social commentary is all over the place, manifested in rambling scenes featuring gum-sniffing kids, prostitution and various activities of fraud. Yet the tone, this time around, is less blazing if equally blatant. Youssef cuts the government some slack, populating his story with sympathetic cops and justifying the rights of mega businessmen. In doing so, he directs his attention to his characters, taking a conceited judgmental position.
As for the much publicized steamy scenes, again, I can’t find anything truly outrageous about them. But since they serve no tangible dramatic motive, it is obvious that Youssef resorts to them to spice things up and attract attention.
His quintessential ‘butt shots’ injected in every one of his past five films is a case in point. The end result is not erotic; it’s cheap and revolting, created by a filmmaker running out of tricks.
The most intriguing moment of the film occurs near the end when the program’s producers are caught shooting an episode about police brutality. In the police station, a cop gives the presenter a good scolding for exploiting the country’s problems for a quick buck.
Ironically, “Call Me, Please is ultimately no less exploitive than the corrupted media it’s criticizing. Like “Shehata, Youssef’s new film is a trifle slice of poverty porn; superficial, hollow and blunt.
Toshka, named after the infamous, ill-fated agricultural project, is supposed to represent the unfulfilled dreams of the country; the mirage of a better future that never materializes. But that’s why “Call Me, Please is essentially a series of dumb allusions set in a watered-down reality.
Youssef’s statements that his new film, already a box-office hit in its first week, is an examination of the impact of technology and telecommunications on poverty-stricken Cairo are laughable. “Call Me, Please is a piece of bad entertainment that could have been better had it not pretended to be otherwise.