By Joseph Fahim
The very first Egyptian film I reviewed was “Katkout,” the 2006 Mohamed Saad star-vehicle that became the former king of comedy’s last bona-fide commercial hit.
In the years since, I’ve grown to regard mainstream cinema in a different light, driven by an interest in what the story, choice of mise-en-scène and characterization say or reflect about society at large. Thus, I gradually found different shades in Saad’s films that spoke volumes about contemporary Egyptian society.
A former character actor who grabbed attention with a number of dramatic roles in acclaimed TV serials, Saad was instantly transformed into a comedy star thanks to a bit-role in Sherif Arafa’s “El Nazer” (The Principle), the top-earning movie of 1999. El-Limby — the thuggish, goalless junkie he memorably played in the Alaa Wali Al Din-starring comedy — struck a chord with a large audience starving for quirky, idiosyncratic characters à la 50s radio show “Sa’a li albak’s” Doctor Shedid, Khawaga Bijo and Abou Lam’aa.
Two years later, the first installment of El-Limby took the local film industry by storm, scooping more than LE 25 million and becoming one of the highest-grossing Egyptian films of all time. Audiences from all social strata were thrilled, critics were appalled and sociologists took it upon themselves to dissect the El-Limby phenomenon.
An equally successful sequel arrived a year later, followed by an endless stream of rip-offs that saw Saad implementing small variations to his hugely popular character. By the time the second El-Limby sequel reached theaters in summer 2010, Saad was no longer the fail-safe box-office draw. Three successive flops notwithstanding, Saad continued to show a baffling resistance to change, adhering closely to his irritating shticks and tired routine.
El-Limby and his many incarnations are extensions of the young-man-seeking-a-better-life protagonists of Togo Mizrahi’s deliberately forgotten Shalom cycle and Ali El-Kassar’s Othman Abdel Basset (also directed by Mizrahi). The difference in traits, ideals and attitudes between Shalom and Othman on the one hand and El-Limby on the other, mirrors the great gap between the 30s and the present.
Shalom and Othman are honest, generous men typified by a naiveté and gullibility intrinsic to the social and cultural climate of a pre-1952 Egypt. Their bravery, determination and selflessness sit in stark contrast to El-Limby’s egotism, aggressiveness and purposelessness. In other words, El-Limby was a natural product of the Mubark era: a brute with no skills, no ambitions and no intelligence who, against all odds, achieves immense success.
After the failure of the last picture, Saad planned to bring El-Limby to the small screen via a large production entitled “Alf Limby we Limby” (A Thousand Limby and Limby). The economic problems that emerged in the wake of the Jan. 25 Revolution led to the deferment of the project possibly until next year.
Eager to win back his audience, Saad saw a golden opportunity in the historical 18 days that led to Mubarak’s toppling to create what was supposed to be a socially-relevant comedy about the revolution. The result is “Tick-tick Bom,” a tedious low-brow farce that marks another low for the indefatigable Saad.
As a comedy, “Tick-tick Bom” is insipid, sluggish and thoroughly unfunny. As a fiction record of the revolution, the film offers a hollow picture devoid of any substance. “Tick-tick Bom” is essentially another quick cash-in on the revolution by a star resolute on making a quick buck before he vanishes into oblivion. Saad is a one-trick pony and this new gigantic misfire will not win him any favors with an audience running quickly out of patience.
Based on an idea by the film’s producer Issad Younis, Saad plays Tika, a failed firecracker-maker with a brain of a five-year-old. As in his past starring roles, Tika lacks ambition and wit and suffers from a serious speech implement. On the day of his wedding to the characterless Dorra, the revolution erupts, denying the pair from consummating their marriage.
Almost immediately, Tika is given the choice between staying behind or joining what he calls the “Facefok” revolutionaries in Tahrir (a day before what director Ashraf Fayek indicates to be Jan. 25, Tika pays a visit to his young neighbors who brazenly parade a computer screen showing the words “The Tahrir Square Rehearsal” in large font). He chooses the latter only to be forcibly recruited by a gang headed by the ruthless (and equally obtuse) Mohamed Lotfi to “raid the house of the rich.”
After initially cooperating with Lotfy’s mob, the valiant Tika takes the stolen goods and distributes them among his poor neighbors. In a sudden fit of remorse, he informs them that those goods are “haram.” Naturally, the God-fearing men and women of his shabby neighborhood return them, an act that propels Tika to join the civilian patrols. The next 30 minutes involve Tika thwarting several looting attempts, saving the life of his next-door Christian neighbor (Lotfy Labib), singing the praise of the revolution and attempting to sleep with his wife.
The second part of the film incongruously evolves into a one-man show for Riyad El-Manfaloti, the accident-prone prison director resurrected from the first El-Limby sequel, “Elly Baly Balak.”
“Tik-tik Bom” is the first full-length Egyptian feature about Jan. 25. Although it’s strictly set during the highly dramatic first days of the uprising, Fayek (“El Labees,” “The Shaabi Side Story,” “El-Limby 8 Giga”) does not venture outside Tika’s neighborhood, which bears no resemblance to any district in Egypt, and the prison ward.
Choice of setting doesn’t induce claustrophobia, but it feels alien, self-contained and overall cartoonish. In fact, nothing in the film feels real, from the dimwitted characters to the implausible events of the story.
The idiotic comedy of the film sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the real-life backdrop. The period between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11 was characterized by various conflicting emotions: relief and paranoia, optimism and uncertainty, self-belief and helplessness. Fayek’s nondescript direction transforms the indefinable, surrealistic events of the revolution into a clichéd, contrived mise-en-scène drawn from Egyptian melodramas of yore.
The core of the film focuses on the vandalism that took place shortly after Jan. 28. It divides Egyptians into two distinct groups: the good, upright people who stood up to defend their homes, and the hooligans who exploited the security vacuum for their own self-interest.
Saad, who also wrote the script, does allow one marginal character to redeem himself, but in general, his characters are very black and white. He doesn’t get under the skin of the muggers, explain the rationale behind their actions or explore the sudden eruption of unprecedented violence. An insightful dramatization of the scariest, most horrific days Egypt has ever witnessed is not what Saad seeks to produce. His sole focus, at least for the first 100 minutes of the film, is the comedy.
At times, the humor seems to be targeted towards school kids. Saad, it soon transpires, is the epitome of mental retardation; a man-child with no charisma, no skills and little sense of reality. The outsized, juvenile comedy — comprised mainly of Shokoko-like ass-whooping (climaxing in slow-mo) that abides to no spacial logic, flat one-liners and the most unimaginative send-up of Muammar Qaddafi’s speeches — makes “Home Alone” looks like Bergman in its lack of economy. The little said about the music number (“If I were a president, I would be gentle on my people”) the better.
The flimsy plot is forced, far-fetched and scrappy. Each dramatic event appears to be culled from different films dissimilar in tones and theme. Containing no tangible central conflict, Saad invents insubstantial mini-conflicts as the story trots forward to an unknown destination. The whole thing ultimately feels like a desperate endeavor by a fading, creatively-bankrupt star with no talent unwilling to confront his ineptitude.
Comedy aside, the most exasperating aspect of “Tick-tick Bom” is the blatant social and political commentary. For starters, the film beautifies the face of Egyptian police, depicting them as decent, sincere men thrust in a difficult situation they bear no responsibility for. The crudest, most insulting moment of the film comes at the end when El-Manfaloti, out of literally nowhere, saves Tika’s life, and arrogantly proclaims, “The police is in service of the people, only if you’re polite.”
Saad not only suggests that the people are to be held responsible for their hostile behavior against the cops, it re-establishes the long-held belief that the police are the masters of the people, the untouchable big brothers who know what’s best.
The Christian-Muslim relations also receive a touch-up. The lone Christian character in the film is stereotypically portrayed as a stingy rich jeweler who, unable to safeguard his family, must call for the protection of his stronger Muslim brother. When he exits the hospital, the one person who appears most concerned about him is the kind-hearted Muslim preacher of the local mosque. Later, he chooses to take refuge in the mosque, leaving his wife and daughter in custody of his Muslim neighbors.
The much-coveted sense of unity that existed during the revolution is undeniable, yet the way Fayek represents it is not only sensational, it’s fanciful, tasteless and cheap. The reliant-relationship between Christians and Muslims as shown in the film is in tradition with classic Egyptian drama, but the emphasis on the Coptic weakness, and the absence of a supportive community, is downright offensive in here.
“Tick-tick Bom” is an oversimplified treatment of one of the most important events of the 21st century; a rushed job that trivializes the Jan. 25 Revolution by reducing it to a few catchphrases and self-regarding sketches. All Saad has to say about the revolution is that it was good, it united us and made us discover our inner-comedians.
6-1: Mohamed Saad and Dorra in a scene from “Tick-tick Bom.”