American East is a dramatic telling of the tensions, challenges and contradictions of living as a Muslim in the United States after 9/11. While it is given more than adequate resources to achieve its goals, and is cast with talented actors turning in good performances, the story is a bit too scattered to be truly effective.
The film revolves around Mustafa Marzoke, played ably by Sayed Badreya, and his family and close circle of friends. Mustafa is a Muslim Arab of Egyptian extraction living in Los Angeles. He owns the Habibi Café, which is barely scraping by, along with the car service he owns and the salon that his sister Salwah (Sarah Shahi) runs part time out of the back. The café is crumbling, with leaking pipes and an air conditioning unit that only seems to pump out sticky, hot air. Mustafa has dreams of greater things, and tries to enlist the aid of his friend, and long time supplier for the café, Sam (Tony Shalhoub). Sam happens to be a Jew, but this doesn't bother either of the erstwhile business partners.
It does bother Murad (Anthony Azizi), a friend and long time customer of Mustafa's, who hangs around the café and chatting with Fikry (Erick Avari), an Iraqi Christian. Murad is of the angry, paranoid Muslim bent, and believes that the authorities in the United States, and the Jews (or "land grabbers" as he calls them) are on a mission to harass and bring down Arabs and Muslims with trumped up charges and unjust prosecution. Murad's constant, vocal exposition on this theme causes some understandable tension with Sam, and exasperation for Mustafa, who sees his investor and dreams for a better future being driven away. Things become more desperate when Mustafa is briefly detained at the airport due to a misunderstanding, and is subsequently investigated by the FBI.
Complicating this already complex story even further are a number of things: a cousin arriving in town from Egypt to conclude an arranged marriage with Mustafa's sister Salwah, with which she is none too happy; family friend Omar (Kais Nashif), a struggling actor who is trying to break free from terrorist type casting, and has just gotten engaged to his pregnant girlfriend; Mustafa's young son Mohammed declaring his desire to no longer be a Muslim and start buying Christmas trees; and rebellious daughter Leila (Tay Blessey) who, while she remains a Muslim, runs around with her punk rock loving friends and smokes hashish. This is a lot for a simple café owner to deal with.
Herein lies the main problem with American East. There is far too much going on. The movie is half over before the viewer manages to place the bewildering number of characters and plot lines in their appropriate places. The film would have been improved immensely by focusing on just two of the many plot lines, perhaps Mustafa's dream to open a new upscale restaurant with Sam and Salwah's balking at her arranged marriage, and casting aside all the rest as peripheral. Mustafa's striving for the American dream and his relationship with his family is the heart of this film. The other material, though often moving and interesting, simply does not have enough room to flesh out in emotionally satisfying ways. A number of plot points and emotional beats are left unresolved at the end, simply because the sheer number of them made it impossible for them all to be addressed.
Having said that, American East has a lot going for it. Clearly, a lot of resources were committed to make this a quality film. A lot of love went into the mix. The production values are high and it looks great. The acting is also terrific. Several of the actors are easily recognizable, such as Erick Avari who has made literally hundreds of film and television appearances, and of course Tony Shalhoub. These two are pros who effortlessly turn in engaging performances as they have for years. But even the not as recognizable faces turn in solid performances, particularly Sarah Shahi as the beleaguered and torn Salwah, with one foot in the west and the other in the east and slightly uncomfortable in both. There is rarely a false step visible in all the performances in the film and the actors (for the most part) shine through despite the short shrift their specific plot line may receive.
American East has at its heart a moving story of how an often overlooked and misunderstood segment of American society pursues their aspirations and strives to fit in while not giving up their essential character. Unfortunately, this powerful core is diluted by a blizzard of plot lines and themes that, though interesting, ultimately take away from the impact of the film as a whole.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, and looks good. The colors are rich and deep and the contrasts sharp. All the action is clearly visible and the gradations of tone are fine enough that even the scenes in the relatively dark café are easily discernible.
The sound is Dolby digital 5.1 channel and also pretty good. The dialogue is easily audible and the sound is rich, particularly the music cues. However, not a lot of effort was made to take advantage of the sound to enhance the film. The LFE channel is rarely if ever used, and the sound seems to be simply spread out around all the channels. English is the only available language track. Subtitles are available in English only. There is some spoken Arabic dialogue that does not have English subtitles associated with it, but these instances are minimal and do not detract from the understanding of the film.
The only extras available are a couple of unrelated trailers, which is unfortunate. American East is clearly a very personal work, produced as much out of love as to make a profit. A director's commentary track or cast interviews would have contributed significantly to the experience. Their absence is disappointing.
American East is a good movie that could have been great. It strives mightily to strike a balance between the east and the west. It makes an honest effort to truthfully present everyone's point of view, from the Arab cab driver to the Jewish businessman to even the Federal Bureau of Investigation. To a large extent it succeeds in this endeavor. Unfortunately, this wide ranging desire to present every facet of the Arab American experience ultimately bogs the film down in a overabundance of details that take away from the effectiveness of the film as a whole. At least three good, intimate films could have been made from the raw material represented in American East. At the end, the viewer truly cares about how things will turn out, whether the characters will make the correct moral choices, whether their dreams will be fulfilled. Too much has been asked, however, and what could have been powerful emotional punch becomes a slap on the wrist. There is a lot to like in this film, and it mostly succeeds in its aims, but it does not reach the heights that it could have. Check it out.