An irrefutably pleasant and yet terminally half-hearted comedy concerned with transitional forces in technology and culture in a small Palestinian town, Man Without a Cell Phone is less an urgent and timely parable than an extended pilot episode for a second-rate sitcom. The would-be everyman of the film’s title comes in the form of Jawdat (handsome and amiable Razi Shawahdeh), a college dropout who spends more time chasing women and drooling over frisky photos on his cellphone than he does on studying for his scheduled Hebrew exams. See, in his small town, one must go to a non-Arabic speaking school and despite his aptitude, Jawdat has failed the exam numerous times.
The inadequate results of these tests puts plenty of stress on Jawdat’s parents, but it’s nothing compared to the seething rage his father, Salem (scene-stealer Bassem Loulou), expels when he glimpses upon the cellphone tower that has been erected next to his olive grove. Exerting theories that the tower sounds out waves of radiation that cause cancer, Salem is all archetypal conservative father complete with a doting yet sassy and critical wife, he just happens to be cast in a far more “relevant” light. To this end, the issues that are being handled by first-time helmer Sameh Zoabi, who also co-wrote the script with Fred Rice, feel only marginally important in comparison to the pedestrian view of an advancing climate of social communication.
Zoabi seems as unsure and apprehensive of the technology as Salem, a mood highlighted by the fact that Jawdat begins to get seriously involved with a classic girl-next-door type (the sister of a local cop) and never even meets up with the half-dozen women he texts and calls from his cellphone. He is, in fact, on his way to a promising date when the Israeli secret police corner him and start bullying him about calls he made to the West Bank. At roughly the same time, Salem has gone about sabotaging the cell tower and later gathers a group of local businessmen and families to protest the placement of the tower.
Part How I Met Your Mother, part Lemon Tree, Man Without a Cell Phone is at its best when confronting the alienation felt by citizens in their own land. The Hebrew exam is its own can of worms but there are far more clever moments, such as when Jawdat and his cousin (Louay Nofy) attempt to get into a costume party and, earlier, when Jawdat attempts to secure the wedding blessing of his girlfriend’s Christian parents. Every once in a while the comedy truly snaps, but the narrative feels both tired and aimless, ending on a note of complete inconsequence.
The controversial religious clashes, the generational culture wars, and by extension, the use of social media are all approached toward the beginning of the film, but its exploration of these themes never even grazes satisfactory. Seeing as the familiar trend of balancing overwhelming political strife with barely a speck of personal insight never seems to be going out of style, Man Without a Cell Phone may very well find a place in the modern art house, but it more than likely will be more useful as a tool to secure a development deal at TBS.