There are a lot of blank stares in The Band’s Visit, one of those Napoleon Dynamite–like deadpan comedies in which the camera and the characters remain frozen for moments that go on … and on. The nerds of Napoleon Dynamite are dislocated existentially, though; here, the title characters are luckless Egyptians lost in Israel, a land that’s genuinely alien—and potentially hostile. The political context cuts against the overall sweetness, but only a little. Sweetness leaks from every frame.
The Egyptians are members of an Alexandrian police orchestra and supposed to play in a place called Petah Tikvah. But they end up in Bet Hatikvah (they don’t know Hebrew), the middle of nowhere, where they stand in a row beside the dusty road in robin’s-egg-blue military uniforms—staring blankly. There is no bus out until the next day. There is no hotel. There is, however, a little roadside café run by Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), a Sabra beauty who keeps a wry distance, then proves to be so hungry for contact she can barely stop wiggling suggestively. She wiggles especially suggestively not for the band’s irrepressible Romeo, Haled (Saleh Bakri), but its leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai), a middle-aged little guy with a bulbous honker and an air of loss. You can predict the rest. The orchestra will spend the night; its members will have fleeting moments of connection with the Israelis; and Dina and Tewfiq will awkwardly get to the heart of their respective aloneness. It’s all so easily charted, but thanks to the actors’ faces and the wit (and economy) of the first-time Israeli director, Eran Kolirin, it breathes.
The Band’s Visit made headlines when Israel submitted it for a foreign-language Oscar and it was disqualified because more than half the dialogue is in English. That’s a particularly tin-eared decision because the English itself is distinctly foreign-language—it’s a halting middle ground on which the Arabic and Hebrew speakers can half-meet. The pleasure comes from watching the characters try to frame their thoughts in another tongue. In the film’s most glorious scene, Haled the ladies’ man finds himself in a roller disco with a young Israeli, who says (in English) that every time he tries to talk to a girl “I hear the sea in my ears.” He asks Haled what it’s like to sleep with a woman, and Haled says, “I can tell you, but only in Arabic”—and launches into a mellifluous monologue that’s so madly, gorgeously evocative that even without knowing a word of Arabic the young man is stirred to action. What follows—the balcony scene of Cyrano de Bergerac in pantomime—is even funnier.
The Band’s Visit resounds with tenderness and melancholy. What’s missing is even a hint of dissonance. Having established that unnerving political context, Kolirin treats the situation of Egyptians adrift in Israel as if it were, say, Chinese people in a North Miami Jewish condominium. There’s no threat—there’s barely a nod to the fact that the countries were at war. It’s a breeze making the case for universal harmony when all of your characters are neutered.
Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show sounds like a blast: It’s wild-man Vaughn and a bunch of performers barreling across the country in a bus (with bunk beds) playing 30 shows in 30 nights, in homage to the Wild West troupers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yee-haw, I love a good Wild West variety show! Disappointment sets in when it’s clear that there will be little in the way of variety. There are, for example, no women onboard, and nothing like rope tricks or cigars being shot out of squaws’ mouths. There isn’t even a lot of music. It’s Vaughn (the master of ceremonies), a few of his friends (child actor and producer Peter Billingsley, Justin Long, and, one night, Jon Favreau), and four youngish, intermittently funny stand-up comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst, and Sebastian Maniscalco. The director, Ari Sandel, never gives you a sense of how the shows were structured. He serves up snippets of routines, shots of the comedians pacing backstage (“I shit like seven times before a show”), and glimpses of pretty girls in the audience—and then it’s on to the next city. Eventually, Vaughn fades into the background and each comedian gets his own little bio, his own moment to show how he overcame life’s obstacles, and his own moment to shine. In Alabama, the comedians bring free tickets to Katrina evacuees and realize they shouldn’t be bitching about having to share a single motel room. After the last show, in Chicago, they hug and cry. It was undoubtedly a great experience for everyone involved, and the show itself might have been a romp. But as a movie, Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show makes you think of the days in which troupes that didn’t deliver were run out of town, bullets pinging off their heels.