Picture this: An Egyptian immigrant to the US returns home for the first time in 20 years. Naively believing that his Egyptian stature atomically grants him certain basic rights and privileges, the man embarks on an accidental odyssey where he comes face to face with every social anomaly plaguing this country.
Intriguing huh? That’s what I thought, and, truth be told, the first 15 minutes of “Asal Eswed” (literally “Black Honey” but also means molasses) — the new blockbuster comedy from current reigning king of Egyptian comedy Ahmed Helmy — brilliantly capitalizes on this premise. But then of course, and like most mainstream Egyptian films, it goes horribly, horribly wrong, and what starts off as an inoffensive, and occasionally biting, social satire, swiftly descends into a repugnant and utterly insignificant exercise into flag-waving nationalism laced with lame duck gag-lines and the most in-your-face use of product placement ever put on celluloid.
Helmy plays Masry Sayed El Arabi, an Egyptian photographer who moved to the US with his middle-class family when he was a kid. Twenty years later, he decides to return home, open up a photo gallery and settle down. Unaware of the futility of his Egyptian nationality, Masry leaves his American passport behind.
As I mentioned, the first 15 minutes display several moments of pure wit. The moment Masry sets foot on Egyptian soil, he’s confronted with the insufferable pollution, discrimination against Egyptians and favoritism towards foreigners and the staggering incompetence that is the hallmark of the Egyptian capital.
He instantaneously falls prey to various conmen, from his minibus driver who sells him a fuul sandwich for LE 60, to the man at the Pyramids who rents him a half-dead mare.
Masry then gets a taste of the Emergency Law when he’s arrested for filming the Nile without permission. Humiliated and assaulted at the police station, he finally decides to retrieve his American passport and, in one scene cheered with loud applause, tosses out his old Egyptian green booklet.
The brief lull during which he reaps the infinite benefits that come with his blue passport comes to an abrupt end when he finds himself at the forefront of an anti-US demonstration where he loses his passport (along with his cash).
Homeless and alone, Masry returns to his family’s old, shabby flat and reunites with his presently unemployed childhood buddy, Saeed Takhtakh (Edward). Now adamant to go back to New York, Masry struggles against more bureaucracy. And as in every whimsical fairytale, he finds warmth, joy and acceptance with his friend’s underprivileged, big-hearted family, starts to see the bright side of this country and understands what it really, really means to be Egyptian.
All’s well that ends well and they all live poorly ever after.
Like his previous critically-mauled outing, “Alf Mabrouk” (A Thousand Congratulations), “Black Honey” is essentially a one-man show, dominated from start to finish by Helmy. But while his charismatic and lively presence managed to fill the screen in last year’s highest grossing film, here Helmy miserably fails to sustain interest with one of his worst, least sympathetic screen performances to date.
Masry is an eligible candidate for the world’s most ignorant expat; a character based on countless dated stereotypes. The God-fearing Masry knows nil about Egyptian traditions. He walks around Saed’s house, in front of his sisters and mother, in the buff; gives blunt relationship tips to Saed’s brother-in-law; and, most infuriating, trots around the city correcting people’s English. For a man with possibly the fakest, most aberrant American accent ever, Helmy’s shtick is neither amusing nor enlightening (it adds nothing to the comedy) but rather patronizing and deeply annoying.
The zappy, brisk pace of the first 15 minutes misleadingly gives the impression that “Honey” could tread on the audacious, uncharted path of the great modern satires of Sacha Baron Cohen and the Yes Men. Even when it becomes apparent that the film is too PG to serve anything remotely revelatory; the sense of catharsis, induced by the send-up of these everyday malaises, keeps hope afloat. As the comedy engine runs out of steam prematurely, the film turns into one gigantic chore exacerbated by its unjustified 2.15 hours length.
Part of the problem is the uneven tone of the film. The story never stops swinging between a watered-down reality and an outlandish fantasy. Director Khaled Marei — creator of “Aasef ala el-iz’ag” (Sorry for the Disturbance), Helmy’s most mature film to date — is undecided on the movie he wants to make; his intention to produce an bona-fide, muscular satire is clearly beyond his grasp.
Marei and his star attempt to walk a tightrope between social critique and life-affirming sentimentality. But Marei is no Frank Capra or Preston Sturges and Helmy is most certainly no James Stewart and ultimately, this escapade proves to be a high-wire act too complex for both Marei and Helmy to pull.
What you end up with is more of the latter and less of the former. The second unwatchable half of the film drowns further in cheap, overbearing sappiness, eschewing the big questions in favor of easy, unpersuasive and deceitful answers.
The whole shoddy affair is contaminated further by the lack of any authentic detail. For instance, in order to return to the US, Masry, holder of the American citizenship, is told to issue a new Egyptian passport and then apply for the US visa. Huh? And apparently, Masry has not yet discovered the wonders of the internet; he’s unacquainted with the fact that the dollar is not equal to two Egyptian pounds.
There’s a great difference between poetic license and sloppiness and Khaled Diab’s script is not only sloppy, but lazy, dim-witted and strangely unimaginative.
The icing on the cake are the bizarre tie-ins. I generally don’t mind embedded marketing as long as it remains subdued and non-invasive. Now, I’ve witnessed all kinds of barefaced product placements in the movies: “Cast Away,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “E.T.”…you name it. But never have I come across something as blatant and dumb as in “Honey”. In one scene, Marei suddenly cuts to a close-up of a mineral water bottle that continues to pop up throughout the film. In another, Helmy pays an unwarranted visit to a branch of one of Egypt’s three cell phone operators, and so on and so forth.
But this disingenuous tactic is the least of the film’s worries. “Black Honey” promises aplenty and delivers pretty much nothing. Helmy is essentially stating the obvious and his second artistic flop in a row is safe, shallow and dull.
There’s an array of pressing predicaments the film could have addressed, innumerable directions it could have followed, but it doesn’t. What the film fundamentally says is that there might be “some” problems in Egypt, but there are still many things to behold and cherish in this country; that Egyptians are inherently good and sincere and that everything is going to be fine and dandy somehow, someway.
What Helmy doesn’t grasp is that by taking such a defensive position, he has become an accomplice to the same social system he set out to attack. By far, this is the biggest disappointment of the year.
"Black Honey" poster.
In “Black Honey,” Helmy miserably fails to sustain interest with one of his worst, least sympathetic screen performances to date.