Last Eid, this reviewer stumbled out of übercrass ‘comedy’ Welad al-Balad dazed, confused, and desperately trying to comprehend how one single movie could be so deeply and overwhelmingly bad. It seemed impossible to imagine a more painful movie-going experience.
That is no longer the case, thanks to Zaheimer (Alzheimer’s). While it doesn’t sink to the STD-infested depths of Welad al-Balad, Zaheimer is certainly the bigger disappointment of the two, and for one simple reason. Welad al-Baladhad had an excuse: it was a Sobky-produced comedy starring the belly-dancer from the sex video and the guy who sings I Love You, Donkey, and Satan’s ringtone, the Shisha Song. To expect anything more than the showreel of sexist caveman antics would have been a sign of delusion.
Zaheimer, on the other hand, is this Eid’s ‘classy’ offering, the supposedly reliable odd one out in a seasonal lineup of kind-hearted thugs and prostitutes, 30-year-old college ‘kids’, and Ahmed Helmy. It had a (relatively) big budget and the same director who pit Ahmed al-Saqqa against a fake lion in Africano. It stars the Arab world’s most popular comedian. It arrives on the tailcoats of an aggressive marketing campaign. Why, then, is it such a tedious, humorless, and, frustratingly predictable mess? Because of all of the reasons listed above. The makers of Zaheimer knew their movie would have a guaranteed audience, and with profit assured, there’s really no need to bother with the tiresome process of professional filmmaking. Costume changes, multiple locations, a story that goes somewhere—all become equally unnecessary when you can just slap Adel Imam’s face on the poster.
Zaheimer suffers from weaknesses on all possible levels. With a dull start that fails to pick up, the film quickly nosedives past the point of no return, weighed down by unimaginative directing and purely expository dialogue. The first half an hour consists solely of Adel Imam shuffling around his house, asking people who they are, and arching his eyebrows at them. It’s obvious the filmmakers were aiming for an About Schmidt feel; bittersweet and darkly funny, quirky yet easy to relate to.
However, the film’s events unfold in such a ham-fisted manner, it’s hard to take any of it seriously, with all the supposed nuances expanded to the point of parody. Imam’s character thinks that it’s Monday. It’s actually Thursday. Cue piano. Imam turns to camera. Slow close-up. In terms of subtlety, it’s one step away from having someone dramatically whisper ‘Zaheimer!’ into your ear every time Imam’s character is told he has forgotten something. Which is every other scene.
Once a joy to watch, Imam has been sleepwalking through roles for the past few years, and his performance in Zaheimer is no different. His trademark mopey look, expression of disgust, and sudden outbursts of shouting are all still there, except they’re no longer employed to add to the performance, they are the performance. The supporting cast members don’t fare much better.
Nelly Karim is her usual comatose self, while Ahmed Rateb gets to add another clone to his ‘loud-evil-man-in-suit’ repertoire. Even the few cast members who have previously proven themselves capable of giving stirring and heartfelt performances, such as Fathy Abdel Wahab and Ahmed Rizk—featured here as Imam’s two sons—are completely wasted in this slice of cinematic limbo. Rizk’s role seems limited to repeating anything that’s just been said, while Abdel Wahab provides the film with its most realistic performance, only because it mainly consists of him nervously glancing at his cell phone, as if expecting a call from his agent.
Symptoms of Zaheimer’s overall inadequacy can also be found behind the camera. The ‘this-is-how-you’re-supposed-to-feel-now’ music is schmaltzy to a degree that would put any Disney composer to shame, while production values seem to be based on convenience more than anything else. Worst of all, though, is the wholly unjustifiable sense of cleverness the filmmakers clearly feel towards their story, especially the plot ‘twist’, which is so painfully obvious it arrives with all the subtlety of an ambulance stuck in traffic. The fact that it’s treated as a plot twist at all is not only an insult to the audience, but an indication of the filmmakers’ stunning naivety/indifference. The whole affair is directed with the same sense of sophistication four-year-olds must feel when they play dress-up with their parents’ wardrobe.
One jarringly poignant scene features a rare appearance by Saeed Saleh, Imam’s real-life friend and co-star from a distant and fondly remembered past. In a cameo role as a man mentally and physically reduced to ruins by Alzheimer’s disease, Saeed wistfully asks Imam if he remembers the “good old days”; Imam tearfully assures him that he does.
Unfortunately, so do we. Ironically, the best audience for this massive disappointment would be those afflicted with the eponymous disease, as they’ll be the only ones lucky enough to forget the time they wasted on it.