As the curtain closes on the current summer film season, all bets were placed on comedian Ahmed Helmy. With an unprecedented slate of major misfires that include Adel Imam’s worst comedy in a decade, “Bobos, Ahmed El-Sakka’s unsavory crime saga “Ibrahim El-Abyad and Ahmed Ezz’s convoluted noirish melodrama “Badal Faqed (The Replacement), the majority of the big-budget productions released in the past three months have failed to cover their production costs.
Blame it on a mix of grim subjects, uninspired scripts and an overall lack of interest from the public, this summer is rapidly edging to become the decade’s least financially successful season. No wonder expectations were high for Helmy’s new film “Alf Mabrouk (A Thousand Congratulations).
For the past three years, Helmy has managed to deliver critically acclaimed LE 20 million plus hits. Last year’s psychological drama “Asef Al Iza g (Sorry for Disturbance) proved that the public is prepared to flock to any of his movies, comedy or no comedy. At least that’s what Helmy and his producers believed.
“Alf Mabrouk is essentially a remake of Harold Ramis’s 1993 classic “Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell about a weatherman forced to re-live the most tedious day of his life over and over again. This is a clear and undisputed fact that the filmmakers have refused to acknowledge. Instead, the opening credits claim that the film in inspired by the Greek myth of Sisyphus, made famous by Albert Camus’s 1942 philosophical essay of the same name. The beginning of the film gives the false impression that the struggle of protagonist Ahmed Galal is indeed a Sisyphean one. Yet, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that film has absolutely no correlation with Sisyphus in either structure or guiding philosophy.
Helmy’s Ahmed is an irresponsible, self-centered accountant working in a stock-trading company. He has no scruples about firing employees to maximize profit. He treats his parents with nonchalance that borders on disdain and treats his only sister with distrust. His relationship with his family is frail, revolving mainly around the benefits he receives from them.
The events of the film take place on Ahmed’s wedding day, which goes horribly wrong. He wakes up to experience the usual domestic routine: His father shouting at him to get out of the bathroom, his mother complaining of the work load, his customary bickering with his sister. In the street, he witnesses a burglary but doesn’t bother to stop the thief.
On his way back from work, he finds himself wrongly accused of a hit-and-run he didn’t commit. The passersby coerce him into taking the victim to the hospital. After going to the police station, he finds that his car has been seized by the authorities. The climax is when, crossing the street, a huge truck hits him and he dies.
Well, technically, he doesn’t.
He wakes up the next day, initially assuming that what has happened in the past 24 hours was a dream, before he experiences the same day all over again, meeting the same exact characters, having the same conversations and witnessing the same incidents.
In “Groundhog, Murray’s character doesn’t succumb to his fate; he chooses instead to exploit the odd situation he is in. This is a classic Hollywood dramatic design Ramis brilliantly employed to create a bigger comic effect without endangering the flow of the story. Unlike “Groundhog, “Alf Mabrouk’s protagonist searches in vain for a way out of the tortuous labyrinth he’s been plunged in. And since the film’s scribes Mohammed Diab (of “The Island’s fame) and Khaled Diab, fail to offer both a tangible explanation and an exit door for Ahmed to take, the drama suffers significantly in the second half of the film as Helmy’s comedic shticks steadily run out of steam.
The main problem here is the film’s lack of one uniformed tone. It takes a generally darker path than “Groundhog. “Alf Mabrouk is part slapstick comedy, part domestic drama, part situational comedy and part inane existential journey. The fizzy, floppy mood of the first 30 minutes give way to uncomfortably drab revelations that don’t sit well with the comedy.
(Spoiler alert) Ahmed discovers that his father is an embezzler, his mother might be a drug addict, his sister is dating his best friend in secret and his closest colleague is stabbing him in the back.
The film is also a one-man show. There isn’t a single known actor here besides the main star. Ahmed’s fiancé is glimpsed very briefly in a single shot. But Helmy’s dominance eventually works against him. One of the many reasons for “Groundhog’s success is that the supporting characters play with stunning perfection against Murray’s character; they’re the real backbone of the film. On the other hand, the talented supporting cast of “Alf Mabrouk, who give some of the most natural performances I’ve seen on Egyptian screens this year, are mere second fiddles to Helmy.
The basic premise of Sisyphus – a man condemned for the rest of eternity to push a rock up a hill, watch it fall down, and goes back to starting point to push it up again – was explored abundantly in many movies, ranging from “Monty Python and “La femme de chambre du Titanic” to Pixar’s “Wall-E and, most fruitfully in Ramin Bahrani’s brilliant “Man Push Cart. Unlike “Alf Mabrouk, none of these pictures share this uncanny resemblance to “Groundhog day.
Camus’s themes regarding the futile search for meaning, the absence of God and the numbing mechanization of modern life, are nowhere to be traced in “Alf Mabrouk. In fact, the unavoidable message director Ahmed Galal (“One of the People, “Abou Ali ) blatantly conveys is contradictory to Camus’s message.
Throughout his journey, Ahmed learns to change his life, reconciling – in scenes of excruciatingly trite sappiness – with his parents and sister. He learns to accept responsibility, to open up his eyes to the world for the first time in his life. All threads of the story ultimately lead to a major sacrifice that leaves the film with no satisfying resolution.
Galal’s message is not only banal, it’s infantile and predictable. The film could’ve taken a million directions to distance itself from the real source material. It could’ve capitalized on Camus’s text to conjure an original and genuine statement about the blandness and smothering ordinariness of present-day life in Egypt. It could’ve even utilized the ingenuity of Ahmed’s predicament to create a clever, uproarious comedy, which is what most viewers expected to watch.
Instead, what we have here is a middle-of-the-road black comedy neither funny enough nor truly dark or thought-provoking. The unexpected success of last year’s “Disturbance must have whetted Helmy’s appetite for more challenging roles.
I admire his guts; laud him for seeking original projects, but “Alf Mabrouk is far from one. Perhaps Helmy should return now to what he knows best.