West Beirut
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Screenplay: Ziad Doueiri
Cast: Rami Doueiri, Mohamad Chamas, Rola Al Amin
NY Distribution Status: opens 3 September 1999 (Cowboy Booking)

Grade: C+

"When I started writing the story, I had no structure," Doueiri confides in the press notes; what he conveniently neglects to mention is that his script was equally structure-free when he finally typed "The End." No law against making an episodic, impressionistic memory piece, of course; trouble is, it's not an especially riveting one -- Doueiri basically settles into Cruise Control on the Coming-of-Age Expressway, relying on the novelty of his war-torn milieu to hold our attention. (That the title refers to the setting, rather than to a character or narrative event or emotion, is depressingly apt; if the idea was that West Beirut, like say Polanski & Towne's Chinatown, is more state of mind than locale, it doesn't really come across.) Worse, the movie is chronologically baffling: because I was a child at the time, my knowledge of what was going on in Lebanon circa the '70s and '80s is pathetically limited, but even I, in my ignorance, gradually began to recognize that years and years had passed (the film begins in 1975, ends in 1983) without any of its three young protagonists having perceptibly aged. This was apparently a deliberate, quasi-surreal choice on Doueiri's part, but it was colossally ill-advised; I spent much of the film's second half in a distracted state, wondering why our luckless heroes were trapped in perpetual puberty. Like so many essentially plotless foreign films -- I'm thinking in particular of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Goodbye South, Goodbye, but there are countless others -- West Beirut only truly springs to life when its characters hop onto some kind of moving vehicle and go joyriding, temporarily liberated from the movie's air of general listlessness; the terrific bike-riding scene in this one, set to a jaunty score by former Police-man Stewart Copeland ("Huh?" I thought upon seeing his name in the credits; turns out he grew up in Lebanon), seemed far, far too short.