Synopsis – Intending to smuggle drugs across the borders, a small-time Lebanese drug-dealer slyly manipulates public opinion with the help of an underrated filmmaker.
My Take – Walking into this Lebanese crime comedy I had no idea what was I walking into. I had read some glowing reviews online referring the film to Ben Affleck‘s Oscar winning Argo (one of my favorite films of all time), probably the reason I went in keeping an open mind. And guess what? The film was a delightful surprise! What started off as a cynical comedy while comfortably shifting genres with gangster drama evolves into a film which is both exciting, smart & fun to watch. The Lebanese director’s debut feature may not always hit its mark on a sympathetically human level but, with its sly humor and bitter insights, this succeeds as a cheeky parody of gangster films. The story follows a trio of three brothers – Ziad (Alain Saadeh), Joe (Tarek Yaacoub) & Jad (Wissam Fares). When a fight between the three brothers and an armed man in a back street in modern-day Lebanon results in the latter’s death, teenage Jad takes the rap to protect the older Ziad, who would have been banged up for life for the crime. During the five years Jad spends in jail, Ziad and younger sibling Joe build a business selling drugs through their takeout pizzeria, but with Jad’s release imminent they are looking to go straight and put their efforts instead into running a small restaurant.
The only thing that stands in their way is Abu Ali, the drug lord whose product they have been successfully peddling and who is not happy with his dealers’ retirement plans. He convinces Ziad to take on one final job, to drive a truck load of locally produced amphetamines into Syria, but once across the border Ziad smells a trap and the deal goes seriously sour. With Abu Ali’s drugs now in their possession, Ziad and the newly freed Jad are keen to profit from this windfall, but need a secure way of smuggling the goods out of the country. Upon a routine collection at the house of their regular customer low-rent documentary filmmaker Charbel (Fouad Yammine), Ziad finds out that an Italian film crew working in Lebanon once successfully shipped drugs back home by hiding them in film cans, which cannot be X-rayed or opened without spoiling the legitimate contents. Ziad approaches Charbel with an offer to fund the feature film he has for so long dreamed of making, the intention being to send the footage abroad for processing, a process Ziad insists on personally overseeing. Meanwhile Abu Ali and his henchman, Hussam, are planning their own revenge on Ziad and realize from Ziad’s exploits that there is limited time within which they have to act leading to chaos all around. The film does get a little ahead of itself in its final few minutes when its narrative suddenly relocates from the entertainment industry to straight up politics. Though the shift is thematically appropriate, it feels rushed in its execution and not entirely necessary given the sharp, socially aware subtext that runs through the film. It’s a stumble across the finish line for a film that otherwise serves as one of the funnier, more regrettably accurate showbiz send-ups to premier this year. More specific to the locale are the scenes that touch on the country’s religious divide, which also happens to be the subject of Charbel’s film-within-a-film. This is at its most intriguing when the boundaries that separate the staged-for-movie drama from real life intermittently crumble, as when devout Christian Jad is inadvertently cast as the male lead opposite Charbel’s wife Alya, then repeatedly freezes because he refuses to say that he is a Muslim, an intransigence that forces a complete rewrite of the script.
With their roles now reversed and encouraged to improvise an argument with Alya, Jad gets so caught up in the action that he rips Alya’s hajib from her head, inciting Muslim onlookers to angrily intervene. The resulting conflict almost escalates into a small-scale religious war. The film-making process and the power play that comes with it are also amusingly satirized, most obviously in Ziar’s gradual transformation from wily drug smuggler to aspiring independent movie mogul. Initially in hiding from Abu Ali and his goons, as his confidence grows and his dress sense sharpens he starts throwing his weight around on set and smartly encouraging alterations to Charbel’s script in order to scale up the action. When shots fired skyward to break up the religion-inspired street fight attract the attention of a local news crew (and inspire some creative storytelling on the filmmakers’ part), Ziad’s growing ambition prompts him to stage explosive attacks on the production to secure it more widespread media coverage, which leads to him guesting on a national TV news program to talk up the filmmakers’ bravery and pompously denounce these assaults as crimes against cinema! Hilarious! Some people may have problems with the ambiguous ending, but I am glad director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya left it that way, mainly as a viewer it helps you denounce so many possibilities of how the film could have ended. The performances are the back bone of this film, well of course where would the excellent script go without the strong performances of Alain Saadeh, Wissam Fares, Fouad Yammine, Alexandra Kahwagi & Tarek Yaacoub. And of course a special mention to the hilarious entourage of Ziad (weirdly I cant find their names on the internet). On the whole, ‘Very Big Shot’ aka ‘Kteer Kbeer’ is an explosive, funny, coarse, polished, rough and witty film, which makes it a must watch for everybody.
Director – Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes