Seeing the sights, but little else: ‘Cairo Time’ never strays beyond borders of romance and social issues
In “Cairo Time,’’ Patricia Clarkson has the face of a woman who just ate a long, delicious meal or cashed a very big check. She plays an American tourist named Juliette and looks expectant and acutely satisfied. It’s an apt expression for a movie that requires her to wander around northern Egypt in layers of fabric and fall deeply in like (at 87 minutes, it’s not long enough for love) with her guide, an excruciatingly handsome man named Tareq (Alexander Siddig).
Tareq used to work for Juliette’s husband, a United Nations official who’s stuck in Gaza. Now he runs a coffee shop. Until the husband arrives — and who knows whether he will; it’s that type of movie — Juliette and Tareq go for local excursions that will sweeten the sorrow should they ever part. This is “Before Sunrise’’ territory. But most of what these two have to say to each other smacks of agenda. The writer and director, Ruba Nadda, is Syrian-Canadian. The bone she has to pick is with the world’s perceptions of Arab culture.
Not long after Tareq picks her up at the airport, Juliette has managed to annoy him with a casual mention of the Middle East. “What is this Middle East?’’ he asks. “Middle where?’’ You get the sense that Tareq has been waiting forever to say that. The same feels true of Nadda, who loads this movie with Juliette’s tiny faux pas simply to give it the illusion of topicality. Tareq and other Egyptians manage to overlook her reductions and assumptions because her regal bearing is hard to resist (she means well) and because the movie isn’t sure what, politically or even romantically, it’s about. The less said of her attempted sojourn to Gaza the better.
“Cairo Time’’ is a kind of bourgeois delusion. It’s authentically aggravated but bogusly conceived. Juliette is awful without anyone seeming to notice. She discovers the hookah, and after complimenting the head covering of a stranger (“I love your hijab’’), she ventures on a jaunt wearing a hijab of her own. In her defense, she works for a fashion magazine called Vous, which seems to have been so named in case Anna Wintour is feeling territorial. When a couple of kids approach Juliette and Tareq one evening to sell bobby pins, she mentions that the girls would make a great Vous story.
Despite the movie’s wan attempts at social issues, Nadda appears to have come here for the same reason as her heroine: sightseeing. The film showcases one screensaver-worthy vista after the next; walking along the pyramids becomes a substitute for sex. Tareq, meanwhile, can’t stop himself from seeming like a man desperate for an invitation upstairs. Clarkson has to appear taken aback by his hungry eyes (even the creases that surround them smolder). Why the surprise? He’s been staring at her like that since she got off the plane.
Siddig has a serious bearing and sharp intelligence. More filmmakers should hire him. He’s sexy, too. But his job here is to give his costar longing glances. Clarkson is so lovely you can barely call his assignment acting. Nonetheless, her blend of professionalism and radiance make for a monotonously passive character. I’m not sure “lovely’’ or “passive’’ is what Clarkson was meant to perform. She’s best with a helping of mania or vinegar. Her exposition-wielding cave dweller was a late highpoint of “Shutter Island,’’ for instance. It’s a relief to see her have a film all to herself (she’s 50). But what if she was meant to steal movies as opposed to star in them?
Still, if “Cairo Time’’ works at all, it’s because of her. The contempt being displayed for “Eat Pray Love,’’ the other nice-looking movie now playing about a privileged white lady on vacation, seems more appropriate for “Cairo Time.’’ “Eat Pray Love’’ is at least about a woman looking for something within herself. The journey is pleasurable without striving for profound. Juliette is too classy to admit this. But, on some level, she appears to be looking for the answer to how she missed the casting call for “Sex and the City 2.’’
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.