More than 20 years after Thelma and Louise took a flying leap into the Grand Canyon, road conditions have not improved much for women traveling unescorted in the US. Such is the conclusion of French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s first English-language film, “Just Like a Woman,” in which a pair of female fugitives quit their bellyaching for belly-dancing as they travel from Chicago to Santa Fe, performing at roadhouses along the way. What might have proven an illuminating perspective on familiar issues disappoints as Bouchareb fails to turn his outsider’s point of view into new insights, and instead takes the easy route, falling back on familiar stereotypes in his tour of US misogyny and xenophobia.
Americans aren’t alone in such prejudices, though. Arabs can be bigots, too, as the stifling household shared by Mona (Salma Hayek look-alike Golshifteh Farahani), her spineless husband Mourad (Roschdy Zem), and Mourad’s termagant mother (Chafia Boudraa) testifies. Brought from the old country in an arranged marriage, Mona has won her husband’s heart but has infuriated her mother-in-law — here the face of patriarchal despotism is female — because she has failed to bear Mourad a child. An unlikely accident (the story relies on dicey plot devices) compels Mona to hit the road, taking the first bus out of town.
Meanwhile, Marilyn (Sienna Miller), who knows Mona casually from her visits to Mourad’s convenience store, has her own problems with her loutish, stay-at-home, unemployed, beer-swilling hubby, Harvey (Jesse Harper). And did I mention that he swipes her paychecks to go out drinking and makes fun of her belly-dancing lessons? His disapproval has kept her from accepting an invitation to audition for a dance company in Santa Fe, but when she gets canned from her job and comes home to find Harvey in the sack with another woman, Marilyn packs up without a word and pursues her dream.
Once the awkward logistics have been accomplished of getting together these two fugitives from domestic oppression, the pair follows much the same trail as Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon back in 1991, except instead of resorting to larceny for expenses they perform in bars and restaurants as a dance duo. Amassing tips, fighting off the advances of macho creeps, they nearly reach their destination before confronting their biggest challenge: a redneck family vacationing in an RV.
Though seldom rousing or illuminating, the film does offer strong performances from Miller and Farahani; the dance scenes are handled especially well, and are at times more revealing of character than the dialogue. Bouchareb also captures the bleak mystique of the barren spaces between big cities, with extreme long shots of cars and people reduced to pinpoints in nearly deserted landscapes — the images at times recall blighted roadside photographs of William Eggleston.
And except for the broad comedy of the recently released “The Heat,” it’s not like there’s a lot of competition out there these days for movies featuring woman protagonists or nuanced female relationships. It’s just like Hollywood to forget that women are part of their audience, too.