Film Review: May in the Summer

Jordanian brides, their sisters, difficult moms and diffident men would seem to have a lot in common with Kate Hudson, Jennifer Aniston, Katherine Heigl and other WASP princesses with their own predictable white-gown blues in countless rom-coms.

There's a Jordanian wedding a-brewin’ in Cherien Dabis' May in the Summer. The director casts herself in the central role of May, a successful American-Jordanian writer who travels to her homeland from New York, where she now lives, to get hitched to very likely prospect Ziad (Alexander Siddig), who is a Muslim. May was raised Christian and the couple's religious difference rankles her devout mother Nadine (Hiam Abbass), who has also never recovered from being dumped by her American husband Edward (Bill Pullman) for a younger woman (Ritu Singh Pande), whom she refers to as "that whore."

May's two younger sisters also join her for the festivities: Yasmine (Nadine Malouf), who is superficial and chronically unable to hold her tongue, and strenuous nonconformist Dalia (Alia Shawkat), who is vegetarian, anti-wedding and probably lesbian. Ziad's absence during the preparatory stages of the marriage is cause for anxiety, as is Nadine's obvious determination to impede the nuptials, through the superstitious use of ancient symbolic ploys like the untying of a knitted rope. May’s long-estranged dad doesn't help matters either with his new wife and poor-sport attitude regarding a simple father-daughter tennis match. As May's wedding-day doubts peak, she encounters Karim (Elie Mitri), a sexy tour guide whose knowledge of her country's native culture and affable manner are in marked contrast to her metrosexual, highly urbanized fiancé.

Dabis has concocted a fairly engaging family dramedy, which would have been a lot better if her own character weren't such a paragon. May is not only beautiful, she's brilliant as well, with myriad fans at her feet, crazy in love with her celebrated book of Arab proverbs—which act as sage signposts in the film—and hotly anticipating her upcoming novel about Palestine in the 1940s. She's a totally together Superwoman contrast to her two messier sisters, with a desirable—if distant—groom-to-be, as well as one of those clichéd bearded bohemian dream guys, brimming over with uninhibited fun and romance, which have been a staple of rom-coms for independent-minded heroines since Alan Bates in An Unmarried Woman and Kris Kristofferson in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Dabis' May runs a pretty gamut of emotions here: bride-like and gleefully anticipatory, defiant in standing up to her impossible parents, alternately fun and argumentative with her siblings, and ultimately weighted down by a sorrowful questioning of her perfect life. But her feelings inevitably come across as shallow. Basking in the serene waters of a seaside spa town, she observes how close Palestine is and how infinitesimal her problems regarding cake and music choices for her big day seem by comparison. That's about as deep as this film gets.

There's a funny sisterly fight which upsets the poolside denizens of that resort, in which Shawkat shines as she refuses to be railroaded into being labeled a dyke. Malouf's character is more fuzzily sketched than her siblings, but she does what she can with it. Abbass rather overdoes the gloom and doom, with her Cassandra-like prophesies about the perils of godlessness, adultery and marrying outside one's faith. Pullman phones in the same crinkly-faced, affable if somewhat clueless guy he has been doing for decades. The big twist regarding his actual confused relationship with his ex-wife is more groan-inducingly obvious than salubriously surprising.

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