Nadine Labaki's new film is called Where Do We Go Now? but a more pertinent question ask might be, "What was she thinking?" Labaki made her directorial debut in 2007 with Caramel, a modestly scaled and charming comedy/drama that was notable for being a Lebanese film and making no attempt reference the conflict that blighted the country for so long. Perhaps that was the wisest decision Labaki could have made, because her second film attempts to blend light comedy with political commentary, and it flounders almost immediately. Labaki has bitten off far more than she can possibly chew here, and Where Do We Go Now? is an indigestible hodgepodge of half-formed ideas.
The film takes place in a small village somewhere in a remote, mountainous region of Lebanon. Sectarian violence exists on the outskirts of this isolated spot, but the women in the village do all they can to stop news of it from reaching the ears of their menfolk, for fear the conflict unbalancing the peaceful existence they have carefully maintained. The tension that simmers underneath this façade is kept from bubbling over by such tactics as provocative news articles being chopped out of the paper before the men can see them, or the village's only television being sabotaged at crucial moments. All of this is very silly and might sustain the plot of a half-hour sitcom pleasantly enough, but Labaki is clearly trying to make a larger statement with this film, and the message becomes hopelessly muddled in the delivery.
Where Do We Go Now? suggests that there would be no war if women ruled the world, and that appears to be the extent of Labaki's thoughts on the matter. It may seem harsh to expect sharp political commentary from a musical comedy, but a film that picks up these themes without actually having any idea what to do with them inevitably comes off as infuriatingly facile. However, what we are entitled to expect from a musical comedy is a few laughs, but Labaki's broad style misses the mark every single time. She has her female characters come up with various schemes to prevent their men from getting involved in tit-for-tat acts of violence – such as faking miracles in the local church and getting them stoned on hash cakes – but these comic scenarios are so clumsily executed I just endured them until it was time for Labaki to finally move on. By the time the women had decided to bus in a troupe of Russian strippers, I decided Labaki had no idea what she was doing.
And yet, Where Do We Go Now? was the hit at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, receiving the Audience Award. Did those audiences not notice how tonally schizophrenic the film was? Didn't the total lack of impact caused by one character's death give them a moment's pause? Were they, like the male villagers, distracted from the film's flaws by its breezy style and Labaki's undeniable charms? Perhaps they were, but I saw nothing in this film beyond a director floundering out of her depth. Labaki's debut may have showed promise, but this picture has taken her nowhere.