'Caramel' is a sugar rush

In some ways, this glossily enjoyable movie, which takes place in a Lebanese beauty parlor, is a lot closer to Hollywood than Beirut.

"Caramel" is one of the more improbable movies to come around in a while – a Lebanese comedy/drama set in a beauty salon. Even more improbable, it was written and directed by (and stars) a Lebanese woman, Nadine Labaki.

In some ways, this glossily enjoyable movie is a lot closer to Hollywood than Beirut. At times, I thought I was watching some oddball Lebanese variant on "Barbershop." You'd (almost) never know from this film that Lebanon is in political turmoil – which I suppose is Labaki's point. She's offering up sudsy escapism for audiences hungering for fantasy.

The film follows the highs and lows of five women: Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), who is about to marry a conservative Muslim but worries because she is not a virgin; Rose (Sihame Haddad), a seamstress who avoids the attentions of a debonair suitor in order to care for her older sister; Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a mousy salon assistant who finds herself attracted to a glamorous female client in the salon; Jamale (Gisele Aouad), an aging actress; and Layale (Labaki), who owns the salon and is having an affair with a married man.

Labaki, both as actress and filmmaker, runs the show. Layale is the impresario of the salon, and her speciality – using hot caramel to strip body hair – is dispensed with great flourish. This is Labaki's first feature, although she has made numerous music videos and commercials, and at times her technique is as slick and gooey as, well, hot caramel.

Still, although "Caramel" may seem safe by Hollywood standards, it could not have been easy for a Lebanese woman to direct a film that concerns itself, however fitfully, with everything from adultery to lesbianism.

Labaki herself is an attractive performer who knows how to energize her cast members. (What she doesn't always know is how to tone them down.) Everything that happens in this movie is predictable, and yet that's part of its modest charm. Because the women in it are all spirited and engaging, we want what's best for them, and Labaki complies. In a sense, the audience is directing the movie as much as she is. In the end, what "Caramel" seems to be saying is that the Lebanese people deserve their never-never-land movies as much anybody else. Only a churl would expect this movie to puncture that bubble with bomb blasts. Grade: B

Rated PG for thematic elements involving sexuality, language, and some smoking.

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