Surprisingly funny and human comedy about cancer patients, particularly a victim of testicular cancer
Prior to catching this German language film, at its US premier showing, I would have considered `German Comedy' to be a contradiction in terms and the very idea of a comedy about testicular cancer seemed best left to the likes of idiots like Tom Green. Instead, this often hilarious, at times moving and always very human tale turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and well-realized films I've seen in this (admittedly) pretty lame year for film releases. The film deals with a promising young man who finds his well-ordered life turned topsy-turvy by a diagnosis of testicular cancer. After a surgery claims one of his `eggs' (the film's German title translates as `The Egg Thieves,' which references German slang for testicles, as well as a term for petty thieves) the main character learns that either more surgery or chemo treatments are needed to give him the best chance for no return of the cancer. He opts, against his controlling mother's and his doctor's advice, for the chemo and begins a lengthy stay in the hospital's chemo ward where he develops a bittersweet romance with a terminal patient and an odd friendship with two other male chemo patients- one an obese, somewhat childlike near-mute and the other an often hostile young man who spends most of his convalescence watching gruesome horror videos. The film takes more than a few swipes at the medical system the patients are trapped within, and the doctors and nurses who run it, but these characters never devolve into total caricature, which would likely happen in most films of this nature. While often the targets of ridicule, the hospital staff is ultimately handled with the same kind of respect the director offers the patients rather than becoming buffoons or cold-hearted monsters. Eventually the trio of patients decides to rebel against the system and, in a truly hilarious sequence, which mirrors dozens of heist films, they set out to reclaim that which has been taken from the protagonist. His testicle.
In many ways, THE FAMILY JEWELS made me think of Robert Altman's MASH. Not that director Schwentke's film has that film's anarchic nature or improvisational style, but it has a similar gift for mining very real and telling humor out of a situation one would expect to be handled with deadly seriousness. Surprisingly, for a foreign film, much of the humor is of a verbal nature but the English translation is very well done and the laughs come through quite naturally. The director also never loses track of his character's humanity, nor the sometimes raw and wrenching emotions that underlie that humanity and the film's humor. You can count on laughing a lot in the course of this film, but a few tears will roll as well, and both tears and guffaws are earned honestly and not by cheap manipulation of the audience. The film's director was in attendance at the film festival I caught this at and he explained during a post-showing Q&A that much of the film was autobiographical in nature, which makes the film all the more impressive. I really only saw this film because I had been very impressed with the directors film TATOO, which I caught at the same festival a year earlier. That film was a very dark and gruesome thriller with more than a hint of horror elements. FAMILY JEWELS could scarcely be more different, but it is every bit as well executed and the combination could mark the German born director as a major new talent. He did share that he's soon to start on a big budget, American action film. I can only hope the experience doesn't beat the freshness of Schwentke's vision out of him.
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