June 21, 2024

Greed may not be good, but it is universal. And while America would appear to have a monopoly on movies about the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake, plenty of other nations have exported their version of the rags-to-riches tale — of which Saudi Arabia’s Oscar submission, “Alhamour H.A.,” is just the latest. Like its security-guard-turned-swindler protagonist, director Abdulelah Alqurashi’s film doesn’t lack for ambition. Unlike him, it never reaches great heights before falling back to earth.

Hamed’s (Fahad Alqahtani) Icarus-like flight takes him from Mecca to Jeddah, where he gets a taste of the good life from afar as a security guard at an oceanfront residential building; after resigning to avoid being fired over his habit of making too much conversation, he calls in a favor from his brother-in-law and begins working at a cell center. Hamed insists he can sell anything, and does have an easy charisma about him — a smooth talker with an innate ability to win over people initially inclined to dislike him, he’s also a bit of a hustler. This is a survival tactic, but it’s also a sales tactic.

“Alhamour H.A.” is set in the early 2000s, a period that seems to be recalled more fondly in Saudi Arabia than it is in America: Hamed speaks of the era in voiceover narration as a golden age when the economy was booming and getting rich quick was the rule rather than the exception. “If you didn’t become a millionaire then,” he tells us in the opening minutes, “you never would.” If only he’d heeded Oscar Wilde’s words of wisdom from “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: “There are only two tragedies in life. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

Not satisfied with his take-home pay, Hamed enlists his old friend Soliman (aka Silly, played by Khaled Yeslam) to start a side hustle. After first buying and selling cell phones (anyone nostalgic for the pre-smartphone era will get a kick out of the early-2000s Nokias and Samsungs on display), he graduates to the considerably more lucrative world of prepaid phone cards. Too much is never enough, though, and soon the motley crew they’ve fallen in with begin to dream bigger: “The whole idea is that we will collect money from the investors, we will get more cash and we will sell more,” Hamed says via voiceover, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that he’s just described a Ponzi scheme.

Much of what follows — from their recruitment of underlings to the likelihood that this meteoric rise is leading to a precipitous fall — feels like Saudi Arabia’s answer to “The Wolf of Wall Street,” down to the fact that “Alhamour H.A.” is based on a true story and Hamed earns the dubious nickname of the Shark of Cards. The problem is that there is no answer to Martin Scorsese here, and if there were, it wouldn’t be Alqurashi. The ensuing debauchery is neither as drug-fueled nor as uproarious; the indictment of Hamed and his cohorts (whether moral or legal) isn’t as subtle or damning. Both film and protagonist want to be something they’re not.

In the midst of their most heated fights, both of the women in his life insult Hamed by calling him a security guard — a cold reminder that you can rise as high as possible but you can’t change your foundation. That cuts both ways in “Alhamour H.A.,” which might be best described as a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

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