In attempting to prove its point that Arabs and Westerners are inherently the same, Just Like Us shrewdly argues that hope for cultural modernization in the Middle East is partially predicated on Arabs’ ability to make fun of themselves. Too bad, then, that Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed’s documentary, which follows him and a group of his multicultural comrades on a stand-up tour of the region, provides only slanted and humor-deficient evidence to support its case. The underlying viewpoint of this nonfiction travelogue is that everyone is united by love of laughter, as well as by common experiences with women, food, and cab drivers. This is, of course, true in a limited sense, but alas, Ahmed exhibits no interest in expanding such ideas into a serious sociological inquiry.
Rather than a mature, multifaceted approach, the director’s portraits of Dubai, Beirut, Riyadh, and Cairo are heavy on still-photo montages comprised primarily of smiling young people and spontaneous encounters with random jokesters. Moreover, instead of contextualizing Ahmed and company’s successful shows within a larger framework (how much of an anomaly are such big turnouts? Is the younger generation’s hunger for humor a small, urban phenomenon, or indicative of a larger nationwide attitude shift?), the film makes its pseudo-“Arab Spring” case solely with images and sound bites designed to bolster its agenda.
That these comedy shows are a substantial hit is heartening. But even with regard to its position that self-reflexivity is a necessary component of progressiveness, Just Like Us doesn’t investigate why such a quality is so foreign to these countries, and how and why it might now be on the rise. Furthermore, though they’re often constrained by censorship (in Dubai, for example, jokes about sex, religion, or politics are forbidden, as is profanity), such fundamental differences between Arab and Western countries (regarding freedoms and mores) are glossed over in favor of crude everyone-is-alike uplift. Similarly disingenuous and glib is its address of sexism, with comedienne Whitney Cummings and a few Arab women’s belief that the hijab is empowering posited by this doc as a conclusive verdict on the topic, rather than merely one side of a larger investigation.
Given such simplistic inquiry, it’s no surprise that Just Like Us opens with a montage in which Americans are defined, via a few man-on-the-street interviews, as either rosy-eyed liberals or ignorant xenophobes. Yet ultimately more depressing is the overriding desire to confront the complexity of Arab-Western relations through feel-good platitudes, with the film refusing to engage with history, issues of rising extremism and religious conflict, or political cause-effect dynamics in favor of its director’s and stars’ comedians-as-Kumbaya-ambassadors back-patting.