'Very Big Shot'('Film kteer kbeer'): TIFF Review

Very Big Shot Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Very Big Shot Still - H 2015

A solid base, but this undercooked pizza could use a few more toppings.

This Lebanese debut feature is a darkly comic thriller about three pizza-chef brothers with grand ambitions to expand their drug-smuggling business.

A trio of brothers make a sideways career move from drug dealers to film producers in this enjoyably cynical debut feature from the young Lebanese writer-director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya. The setting is Beirut and the language is Arabic, but Very Big Shot has inescapable echoes of classic US movie-biz satires like Get Shorty and In The Soup. A good idea weakened by its sluggish pacing and bumpy tone, Bou Chaaya's film premieres in Toronto today before screening at London Film Festival next month. Outside the festival bubble, modest commercial prospects will depend on a niche mix of domestic audiences, the Arab diaspora and world cinema buffs.

The story opens in punchy fashion, with a fatal street shooting and the arrest of three brothers for murder. The youngest, Jad (Wissam Fares, a puppyish dead ringer for Casey Affleck), agrees to take the rap and serves a shorter juvenile sentence of five years. Meanwhile the real killer Ziad (screenplay co-writer Alain Saadeh) builds up a cocaine-dealing business using the family's pizza shop as cover, with reluctant cooperation from his disapproving middle brother Joe (Tarek Yaacoub). One of their main clients for special deliveries is film-maker Charbel (Fouad Yammine), a pretentious blowhard whose beautiful actress wife Alya (Alexandra Kahwaji) is having an illicit affair with Joe.

By the time Jad is released from jail, Ziad is tiring of crime and hoping to go straight by opening his own restaurant. But his underworld bosses are unwilling to let him off the hook, sending Ziad on one last perilous mission across the Syrian border, straight into an ambush which backfires in bloody fashion. Returning to Lebanon with a truck full of Captagon, an amphetamine pill popular with rebel fighting groups across the Middle East, Ziad is now potentially very wealthy. But he is also living on borrowed time. Menacing mob enforcers soon begin calling for him at the pizzeria.

Initially riffing on familiar crime-thriller tropes, Very Big Shot seems to be heading towards an inevitably violent showdown for much of its first act. But Bou Chaaya pulls a smart swerve midway through, softening the lowlife grit and amplifying the satirical wit. Sitting on a mountain of stolen drugs, Ziad and Jad conceive a crackpot scheme to smuggle them out of Lebanon inside old-fashioned celluloid film canisters.

The plan entails Ziad becoming a film producer himself, backing Charbel's long-cherished, laughably clichéd passion project about a forbidden love between a Muslim man and a Christian woman. The low-budget production explodes into sensational news story after accidentally triggering a religious riot in the street, transforming Ziad into a media celebrity and setting the story up for an audacious final twist, which will probably resonate deeper with local audiences accustomed to deep-rooted political corruption.

Very Big Shot features agreeably meta jokes, with small-time criminals arguing over the merits of Sylvester Stallone while dismissing low-budget indie features like this one as "the kind of movie you need a PhD to watch." But Bou Chaaya seems to have only a shaky grasp of his comic concept, squandering some potentially fertile ideas, including a subplot in which real-life secret lovers Alya and Joe briefly play lovers on screen.

The naturalistic performances are unshowy and persuasive throughout, especially the wiry and intense Saadeh, while the soundtrack is a pleasingly rich mixtape of local pop and folk sounds. But the overall pacing of Very Big Shot is a little too baggy to keep either the comedy or thriller elements firing properly on all cylinders. A tighter edit would provide some much-needed rhythmic punch to this undercooked but likeable debut.

Production company: Kabreet Productions
Cast: Alain Saadeh, Fouad Yammie, Marcel Ghanem, Tarek Yaacoub, Alexandra Kahwaji, Wissam Fares, Georges Hayeck, Fadi Abi Samra, Marcel Ghanem
Director: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
Screenwriters: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Alain Saadeh
Cinematographer: Fadi Kassem
Editors: Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Simon El Habre
Producers: Lucien Bou Chaaya, Christian Bou Chaaya, Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
Music: Michel Elefterides
Sales company: Be For Films
Rated 14A, 107 minutes