Immigrant’s story stolen by Marilyn
“Room to Rent” is an extreme example ― this British comedy about an Egyptian screenwriter trying to earn a visa and find his muse in London was finished in 2000 and released in Britain almost five years ago. Political changes mean that at times the film shows its age, but its optimism and light comedy is a relief in a more serious age.
The title derives from the gimmick: Ali (Said Taghmauoi) spends the movie bouncing from rented room to rented room, kicked out over and over for putting unflattering portrayals of his landlords in his screenplays. He works all day in a kitchen, all night as a waiter, and on weekends as a belly-dance instructor for a sexually frustrated married French woman (that is, as a gigolo).
The screenwriter concept is a little played out ― no need to wonder where the Egyptian director and screenwriter, Khaled El Hagar, got his ideas ― but this iteration is weird enough to make it worthwhile. For one thing, Ali only has 12 weeks left on his student visa ― the deadline keeps the film moving, and the bizarre but delightful supporting cast doesn’t hurt either.
Best things first: Ali’s third rented room is with a woman who thinks she’s Marilyn Monroe. Juliette Lewis is a riot in the role; gazing past other actors’ heads and cooing wistfully, she obviously had more fun making this movie than should perhaps be allowed. Later Ali stumbles across an ancient British “faith healer” and Egyptophiliac named Sarah (Anna Massey), who’s a few bricks short of a pyramid but manages to remind Ali of the value of human interaction.
Putting “Room to Rent” in theaters now is like opening a time capsule, taking the audience back to a time before terrorist attacks changed the racial calculus in Western culture, before Taghmaoui’s native city of Paris was engulfed in immigrant riots, and generally before everyone took the issue of immigration from North Africa and the Middle East so solemnly.
Ali’s solution to his problem is to buy a fake marriage to a British citizen, thereby “earning” the right to stay. It’s questionable whether a film that plays immigration law for comedy in that way would even be made today (particularly in the EU), but “Room to Rent” is better off because of it. Given the political conflicts of the times, a comedy like this one is a breath of fresh air.
Less unusual is the film’s positive treatment of Ali’s landlord Mark (Rupert Graves), a gay photographer. Though very sweet, a scene of Ali at Mark’s mother’s funeral, mistaken by Mark’s distant father for Ali’s lover, could have come out of a dozen other films and television dramas.
“Room to Rent” is no magnum opus, but it does have appealing, offbeat characters and a gentle sense of humor. And Lewis almost makes up for all the cliches.
Room to Rent
Comedy / English
by Ben Applegate