‘Shah Bob’: Film Review

Courtesy of B Good Films
“Write what you know” isn’t always the best advice.

A 40-year-old is caught between his screenwriting dreams and tradition-bound parental pressure in a comic drama set in L.A.'s Iranian community.

After his 2001 debut feature, America So Beautiful, made the festival circuit and a Hollywood career didn’t follow, writer-director Babak Shokrian, son of Iranian immigrants, chose to juggle his artistic aspirations with full-time participation in his father’s real estate business. His new film centers on a struggling screenwriter who’s working in his immigrant father’s real estate business. However close to his heart the material may be, Shokrian’s movie veers uneasily between drama and comedy, rarely hitting the right notes.

The filmmaker’s observations about “Tehrangeles,” L.A.’s Iranian community, might strike chords of recognition with some Los Angeles moviegoers. But most audiences will be unmoved by the prosaic spin on well-traveled subjects — the age-old clash between day-job survival and self-expression, the generational conflicts at the heart of the American saga. Though there are narrative moments and stylistic flourishes that click, too much of Shah Bob feels plodding and generic.

Reza Sixo Safai plays the title character, who’s listlessly chafing under the Old World expectations of his married doctor brother (Ally Porabas) and their parents (Vida Ghahremani and an especially good Parviz Sayyad, as go-getter Pop). As far as they’re concerned, enough already with the Hollywood dreams; it’s way past time for Bob to settle down and start a family.

As the apartment building manager at one of his father’s properties, Bob withstands indignities with a certain equanimity and appreciation for the absurd. But he’s a drifting, passive protagonist, and there’s no urgency in his suffering-artist plight, no matter how many times we see him typing away at his laptop. The performance by Sixo Safai (Circumstance) comes across mainly as self-absorbed — a problem that’s exacerbated by the overuse of close-ups. (Cinematographer Robert Murphy fares better in his shiny views of Los Angeles’ Westside.)

When Bob jumps into action, he’s utterly unconvincing, whether he’s pitching a project or pursuing a relationship with the pampered Sheila, a blank cartoon of vapid materialism played stiffly by Solmaz Niki-Kermani. Bob protests mildly when Pop calls on him to strong-arm a deadbeat tenant (Julian Curtis) and a devious business partner (Ardavan Mofid). Though they’re both exceptionally hideous people, Bob turns on them with an unexpected vengeance that reads as plot contrivance rather than character revelation. Any intended sense of mounting anger gets lost in awkward tonal shifts and a surfeit of dull dialogue by the director and cowriter Scott Sampler.

In terms of Bob’s writing, the only supportive person in his life is a layabout friend (Peter Choi) who’s discarded from the story as soon as he has served his purpose: not merely providing the voice of conscience to counter all the talk about financial security that otherwise bombards Bob, and not just encouraging Bob to follow his dream, but specifically urging him to mine his day-to-day experiences instead of focusing on higher-concept material — in other words, to write the film that we’re watching.

It’s not necessarily bad advice. The problem is that unless the likes of Charlie Kaufman or the Coen brothers are involved, screenplays about writing screenplays rarely transcend the solipsistic to truly engage. Shokrian dallies with the Felliniesque, sometimes successfully, and he uses a strong score by Nima Fakhrare, with a notable jazz sequence by Cengiz Yaltkaya, to elegant effect. But his material and style aren’t robust enough to give the meta touches zing or to tap into a rewarding satiric vein.

Production company: B Good Films
Cast: Reza Sixo Safai, Parviz Sayyad, Solmaz Niki-Kermani, Vida Ghahremani, Ardavan Mofid, Ally Porabas, Peter Choi, Julian Curtis, Mikos Gyulai, David Abrahams, Zohreh Ramsey
Director: Babak Shokrian
Screenwriters: Babak Shokrian, Scott Sampler
Producers: Babak Shokrian, Bert Kish, Reza Sixo Safai, Kami Asgar, Scott Sampler
Executive producer: Babak Shokrian
Director of photography: Robert Murphy
Production designer: Monique Dias
Editors: Bert Kish, Steven Farr
Composers: Nima Fakhrare, Cengiz Yaltkaya

No rating, 87 minutes

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