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Inauthenticity Reigns Supreme in "Whatever Lola Wants" at the Tribeca Film Festival

by Tonya Plank
May 1, 2008
various New York City movie theaters
The film "Whatever Lola Wants," made by Egyptian-American director Nabil Ayouch, which had its United States premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on May 1, 2008, is full of so many cartoonish characters, predictable, clichéd plotlines, inauthentic "Oriental" dancing and bad acting, it was nearly unwatchable. Its only redeeming quality is the beautiful Egyptian scenery.

The movie tells the all-too-obviously fictitious story of New Yorker Lola, a blonde, blue-eyed American jazz dancer who can't get a dance gig to save her life. One evening, her Egyptian gay male friend (a staple "chick flick" character who can at times provide the heroine with a genuine, alternative view of the world but here is too stereotyped and cartoonish to do so, or even to be endearing) who tends bar in an Egyptian restaurant in Greenwich Village, convinces her to perform a sexy jazz routine atop the bar for a patron on whom she has a crush. Another man, Zack, an Egyptian visiting New York whom Lola is also attracted to, happens to be at the restaurant that night as well. Though Lola's not a good dancer and, predictably, stumbles, sending plates full of food messily flying into the laps of angry women donning expensive gowns, Zack falls for her anyway. They have an affair and soon he is inexplicably gone without a goodbye. Without thought, she hops on a plane to Cairo and somehow manages to find his family's mansion. Zack, however, happens to be engaged to someone else.

While in Cairo, Lola asks around for the whereabouts of belly dancing legend, Ismahan, to whom she was introduced via videotape in New York by the gay friend. She also happens into a belly dance club / prostitution house, where she dances one night for fun, and though she has not a clue as to how to belly dance, the owners beg her to work for them – as a dancer of course; one night a man propositions her and she smacks him across the face, American-style, with no punishment whatsoever. No one wants to tell Lola how to find Ismahan, whom it turns out has been disgraced throughout Egypt after being caught in public with a man other than her husband. So, Lola calls her gay friend in the U.S., who gives her Ismahan's address which he inexplicably knows. Lola goes to Ismahan's house, only to be asked by the dancer, distrustful of outsiders, to please go away. But Lola befriends the dancer's daughter, and eventually convinces Ismahan to give her dance lessons.

Throughout her time in Cairo, Lola never tries to speak Arabic, the local language. Inexplicably, no one seems to have any problem either speaking English with her, or with her apparent American arrogance as she laughs and speaks loudly, crassly creates commotions in crowded marketplaces, smacks delicate, mild-mannered Ismahan while joking with her, and makes demands of everyone as if she owns the country.

An important dance promoter sees Lola at the prostitution house and, immediately smitten with her, asks her to perform at the wedding of a very famous Egyptian man. She tells Ismahan who seems dismayed but helps her prepare. Lola wows everyone dancing at the wedding, which is attended by the owner of a very famous dance club, The Nile Tower, who is so taken with her that she hires her on the spot. Soon, Lola becomes a huge sensation all over Egypt. Her photographs are seen on buses, billboards, and posters everywhere. Even her gay friend back home hears of her fame. In her last performance at The Nile Tower before returning to America, she gives a speech, in full English of course, about how Ismahan should be accepted, that she's a wonderful dancer and she shouldn't be shamed simply because of adultery. The crowd immediately accepts Lola's words and applauds her wildly. Lola has reformed Egyptian society and everyone is happy. And, surprise surprise, the promoter who hired her to dance at the wedding just happens to be Ismahan's former lover. Through Lola, they are brought back together and resume their relationship, now with the approval of Egyptian society.

Of course my main reason for seeing this film was the dancing. For me, the ridiculously fantastic storyline wouldn't have so completely ruined the movie had the dancing been good, or even decent. But Ayouch and the actress who played Lola, Laura Ramsey, who spoke to the audience after the showing, both admitted that Ramsey had no dance training whatsoever at the start of the film. She took a crash course in belly dance in order to play the part. It's all too clear to anyone who knows dance that Ramsey was not a trained dancer; even the early footage of her jazz dancing make that clear. And the film is so centered on Lola, there is very little footage of any other dancers, including Ismahan, who refuses to teach Lola by illustration, only giving verbal instructions. While Ramsey's crash course may have been enough to please most filmgoers, it is dishonest of the filmmakers to portray her belly dancing, which they referred to as "Oriental," as that of an authentic, accomplished belly dancer. While the character of Lola was not supposed to know belly dance when she first arrived in Cairo, a trained dancer, as Lola was supposed to be, would have had a much easier time picking up a new style.

The film, unfortunately, is disappointing on nearly all levels. Though American audiences are treated to lovely scenery of Egypt (and Morocco, where it is filmed as well), we are never given anything approaching a profound view of the country's inhabitants or culture. The dancing is completely inauthentic, the storyline is clichéd and unbelievable, and the characters are too one-dimensional and stereotyped to take seriously.
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