Among the modes of female empowerment belly-dancing might not seem to be high on the list, but in Rached Bouchareb’s film it’s the catalyst for two women to flee their unhappy marriages and hit the road together on a liberating, if often disheartening, journey of self-discovery. While undoubtedly sincere in its message about women’s liberation, and equally so in its concern with the experience of Arab immigrants in America, “Just Like A Woman” comes across like a simple-minded melodrama that never rises above cliché.
Marilyn (Sienna Miller) and Mona (Golhifteh Farahani) are both hardworking Chicago wives. Marilyn has a job at a modest computer-repair store that apparent supports her and her husband Harry (Jesse Bob Harper), while Mona works as a clerk in the convenience store of her imperious mother-in-law (Chafia Boudraa), who hounds her mercilessly about her failure to get pregnant. And her husband (Roschdy Zem) is too spineless to stand up for her. But they both get through the long days by the enjoyment they take from the belly-dancing classes they share.
Each woman suffers a domestic crisis simultaneously. Marilyn loses her job and returns home to find that her husband is cheating on her; Mona prepares the wrong dosage of her mother-in-law’s medicine and fears she’ll be arrested for killing the old woman. So both flee the city, fortuitously meeting at a highway rest stop, and they decide to continue on together to Santa Fe, where Marilyn hopes to win a contest that will win her a spot in a dance troupe. Along the way they dance in bars and clubs to make ends meet, and camp wherever they can.
The points the movie makes are awfully obvious ones. The women are treated like merchandise both by their husbands and by many of the men they meet on the road. They suffer sneers from snooty and prejudiced people. They talk to their husbands, who beg them to return, but resist returning to such a stifling life. A subplot involves a detective (Tim Guinee) who begins a search for Mona and—after her husband reports her missing—Marilyn as well. But not much comes from that in terms of action; this is no mini-version of “Thelma and Louise,” and there’s certainly no Brad Pitt character in the mix.
“Just Like a Woman” is the sort of film that seems proud of dealing with big issues but simplifies and trivializes them instead of grappling with them subtly. And the belly-dancing sequences, as well as others with Miller in her bikini or shorts and tank-tops, come across as odd in a story about the objectification of women. The leads are fine (though the secondary cast members are often less so), and Christophe Beaucame’s cinematography manages some nice touches. But while one can sympathize with the subjects Bouchareb is exploring here, his picture strives for a great deal more than it actually delivers.