There are no grand revelations but it is a heart warming film created skilfully.
Bottom line: If you want to watch a film about Lebanon that doesn't involve war, "Caramel" is a moving, laugh-out-loud funny comedy with plenty of eye candy.
The world of the rom-com is one fraught with danger these days. When a rom-com bills itself as a rom-com and then actually does what it tells us it's going to do‚"provide us with shallow, lightweight entertainment‚"they usually end up being gabs of fun. Where things get nasty is when a rom-com tries to be something it's not, be that a deep, serious examination of [insert issue of the day here] or a work of filmic importance-with-a-capital-I. I grant you, it is possible for the rom-com to enter the hallowed halls of the canon, but I'm pretty sure that Howard Hawks never thought ‚I'm making one for the ages!‚? on the set of Bringing Up Baby, nor Billy Wilder during the filming of The Apartment. In other words, kids, if you're going to make a rom-com, make a rom-com.
As a good example, take Sukkar Banat, released in English-speaking countries as Caramel. (For the record: I had no idea that people actually waxed with real honest-to-goodness caramel. I can't imagine wanting to do anything with it but eat it.) When Caramel is doing its rom-com thing, drawing in equal parts from Hollywood (the obvious comparison here is to Barbershop) and Bollywood, it's a gas, funny and bitchy in that Sex-and-the-City sense, poking fun at everything from its main character Layale (played by director Labaki)'s torrid affair with Rabih (a man we never meet) to the oppressive religious atmosphere hanging over Beirut like a never-dispersing mushroom cloud. It is pointed without being heavy-handed, and while one can't ever accuse it of subtlety, it's still charming enough that one can't help but love it. The best part of this ensemble plotline, for my money, is a burgeoning relationship between salon worker Rima (Joanna Moukarzel, who has never been on a screen again‚"that needs to change) and repeat customer Siham (Fatmeh Safa, another non-actor who should be getting regular work). It's the most understated thing in the movie, and given that oppressive religious atmosphere mentioned before, it's also the most shocking. That plotline alone‚"however minor it may be‚"makes this movie worth a wholehearted recommendation.
The problem arises when the movie tries to move into deeper territory without bringing along the sassy attitude, which it does with a few of the stories here. You know the drill, when the music swells... it's odd, because obviously Labaki knows how to adapt the rom-com attitude to serious subjects (again, I will harp on how the movie treats religion here; the montage of Layale trying to get a hotel room for an anniversary celebration with Rabih is golden), but every once in a while, the movie heads for territory where it's obvious Labaki is less comfortable with the style, and I could never quite figure out why.
In other words, not a perfect movie, but a good one, and worth watching; it has more strong points than weak ones. ***
On paper, the female protagonists could easily be seen as chick flick stereotypes but the acting and well drawn character observations prevent that. The different cultural background and how it impacts the women is fascinating, and quite enlightening, too but there's still plenty of common ground to relate to.
The ending they've opted for is the most obvious one for a film like this. It does feel predictable and a little cheesy; almost like watching a commercial. The tone isn't so far off the rest of the movie that it ruins it though. It might be an on-the-nose and slightly fluffy ending but it's still an enjoyable, satisfying and in-keeping conclusion to the film.
It is also beautifully shot and the cinematography and direction do elevate it above what it actually is but what it is is still a well observed, well acted female character study...and there's nothing wrong with that.