White boy checks out that Somalia thing in 'Dabka'

'American Horror Story' hottie, Al Pacino and Barkhad Abdi star in problematic adventure tale #Tribeca2017

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  • Dabka (dir. Bryan Buckley)

Most of you, most movies tend to guess, have probably gone to college and if you're reading a movie review, maybe you have a liberal arts degree. Stereotypes, I know. If you have gone to college and acquired the aforementioned degree in old books, you might, like me, have had some trouble getting a job. Maybe you live in your parent's basement. But you know what has never occurred to me, despite my unemployment, depression, and slowly disintegrating state of affairs? Heading to Somalia and lording over the locals. I know, I just lack the ambition of Jay Bahadur, played by Evan Peters of American Horror Story fame in Bryan Buckley's latest effort.

But Bahadur doesn't begin Dabka as the ultimate liberal arts badass: he is sad, living in his parent's basement and very sad that some woman we don't care about is about to get married. In the midst of telling us how sad he is, he runs into a fictitious journalist named Seymour Tolbin, who is played by an Al Pacino in one of his least elegant roles since Righteous Kill. He has all the grace and conviction of a walking and coughing sock puppet. Earlier, we came to understand that Bahadur has vague ambitions to be a journalist and want to go to grad school to educate himself. Pacino corrects him: "journalism isn't taught," "fuck Harvard," and "fuck more girls." For one of these reasons, Bahadur immediately packs up and head off to Somalia, currently at the height of media attention because of a number of high-profile spots of piracy.

Landing in Somalia, or more particularly, the semi-autonomous state of Puntland that broke away from Somalia in 1998, not that details like that matter very much in Dabka, Bahadur is greeted by the son of the local President (Armaan Haggio). Its worth noting that the 'real life' Bahadur is actually half-Indian but, in casting Peters, the story is left with the uncomfortable image of a pasty-ass American Horror Story actor being served hand and foot the moment he lands in the African continent. Whatever. Bahadur is, somewhat absurdly, tasked with telling Western journalists, none of whom know who he is, the truth about Puntland or Somalia or whatnot.

The movie's tone attempts to hit on Cameron Crowe's plucky Almost Famous so hard that Buckley even gives him the wife of a feared pirate to have a crush on. Of course, this is also a cliché of the white boy African adventure story, evoking something like Kevin Macdonald's Last King of Scotland, a movie also about a bored white boy who heads off to an African nation in the midst of civil war because he is bored. But where Macdonald's film presses this as a fable of postcolonial politics--the important person's wife is brutally killed after Macdonald's protagonist sleeps with her--Buckley is uninterested in anything like this.

Emphatic, instead, throughout Dabka is that journalists of all stripe are too cowardly to report in Somalia, hence making Bahadur some kind of badass. Peter plays Bahadur as an Apatow bromantic hero: clumsy, cute and with a shit-eating grin that makes me want to drink twice my weight in bleach. He's better Ryan Murphy-evil and with the occasional fake British accent. "This is my country," Peter proclaims after buying khat leaves (a local narcotic) and chilling it out with Somalian privateers who are conveniently blasting "Juicy."

Yet, for some reason, he does not strike me as the first white dude to stroll into an African nation as if he owned the place.

The central conceit to Dabka is that it is real and, aside from Pacino, all this nonsense actually happened. Buckley, who has directed a lot of Super Bowl commercials, plays it like a Super Bowl commercial: can you believe we pulled it off? The colors buzz like a fizzy late-Wes Anderson movie and there are so many shots of semi-automatic rifles that you would think the entire nation of Somalia was some kind of gun show. Can you believe some dude just flew to Somalia and winged serious journalism? Yet, for some reason, he does not strike me as the first white dude to stroll into an African nation as if he owned the place. The politics of a privileged, but down on his luck, Canadian college grad demanding inclusion into the world of Somalian gangs in order for him to have material to write a book hangs limply in the air of Dabka, barely able to breath in a torrential rain of unfunny jokes about how awkward and down-on-his-luck its protagonist is.

The only performance worth a damn in Dabka is the criminally underused Barkhad Abdi, who got an Academy Award nod for Captain Phillips and was in an episode of "Hawaii Five-0" last year. Abdi, as Bahadur's main tour guide puts up with a script full of uneasy jokes like a champ: he tells Bahadur that he will stand by him because Bahadur is his "bro" and, for five seconds, I believed him.

What Bahadur, at least in Dabka, learns from his adventures is that Somalian pirates, big surprise, don't view themselves as evil thieves. In fact, the only real revelation in Dabka is that Somalians, from pirates to women who flirt with, are people. I'm not quite sure why you need a movie to tell you that.

Dabka is currently playing this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival: get tickets here

Andrew Karpan mostly keeps to himself. Follow him on Twitter.

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