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Ralph E. Portillo
In toney Brentwood, Benjamin Fiedler prepares for his bar mitzvah; trouble is, he understands neither its meaning nor the Hebrew, and his parents (particularly his successful-agent father) are planning the most lavish party possible. Benjamin wants his dad to give him some space, so he gets an idea: to invite his grandfather, who left the family years ago and for whom Benjamin's dad has an intense dislike, to come two weeks early. Thanks in part to grandpa - and to the immediate family's love - Benjamin may have a shot at figuring out what it means to be a man. Written by
This is a coming-of-age story with a twist. There is more than one person coming-of-age.
In a nutshell, it is the story of an angst-ridden thirteen year old boy whose troubles are doubled by his pending bar mitzvah.
His father (Jeremy Piven) is a Hollywood agent intent on turning the bar mitzvah into a recruiting event to keep and grow his client base. This is complicated when his former partner, played by Larry Miller, throws a mega bar mitzvah for his own son, with the same intention in mind.
Piven's angst at creating the perfect bar mitzvah/recruitment event is made worse by the arrival of his hippy-like father (Gary Marshall), who is attached to an early 40-something New Ager (Daryl Hannah) and teaching English to children on the Navajo reservation. I guess it's supposed to be funny, just looking at Marshall and Hannah. Marshall's and Piven's characters are estranged, the father having walked out on Piven and his mother (Doris Roberts) 26 years earlier.
We have an angst-ridden triangle between the three men: grandfather, father, and grandson. (The trinity in a Jewish story?) Indeed, the only struggles in the story are between men. The men have no plot difficulties or unresolved issues with the women, or the women with each other. Frankly, there is no way men can have unresolved issues and not emotionally involve the women in their lives. It's just not realistic, not even in a satirical sense.
I gave this film a "4" because of the story. It has a significant flaw. There is just no moment when I felt a human connection with the three men. I was shown all the events that led to the all-important climax, and then I felt nothing. It was like discovering I had swallowed a Chicklet instead of Viagra. No emotion. No "ah ha!" moment. I was more concerned that there wasn't enough butter on my popcorn. And because I felt no emotional connection with or between the three men, I did not feel their catharsis. And that's a real problem for a coming-of-age film. There were a few nice moments between the grandfather and grandson, but that was it.
Regardless of what several "mainstream press" critics wrote and to the writer's and director's credit, I didn't see one stereotype. There were a few undeveloped characters, caricatures really, but that, too, is the fault of the storytellers it's lazy, not malicious.
Why it happened this way, I have no idea. Maybe they were forced to cut the film strangely or leave out things they wanted put in, due to money constraints. It just doesn't work.
The acting was fine, featuring some of the best actors on television today. That made it marginally watchable. Maybe television is where this film should have been sold. I see this as a Starz film. Not quite HBO or Showtime material. IFC or Sundance will be its home in about six months.
I counsel the writer and director to learn from this experience. You have to flesh out your characters more and let us in on their inner struggles. Don't tell us. Show us. That's what makes drama and comedy work, especially on film. Make us as tense as the characters appear because of the conflicts within the situation, and then resolve the audience's and characters' tensions at the same time. To paraphrase Woody Allen, if it's a comedy, make us bend with the character; if it's a drama, make us break.
For example, don't match Richard Benjamin's Bill-O'Reilly-loving rabbi character with Marshall's tolerant grandfather, and do nothing with it. That could have been some very funny stuff as the two men synthesize their worldviews. Instead pffft. Nothing.
And finally, have a bigger theme something the audience can sink its teeth into. I'm still not quite sure what it is. (And I won't venture a guess, because I don't want to spoil the ending for anybody.) Go back and watch how Chaplin created and then unknotted tension in "City Lights", how Sam Woods did it in "A Night at the Opera", how Marshall did it in "The Flamingo Kid" (another coming-of-age story), or even how it's done in the simplest episode of Piven's "Entourage". Have somebody check the treatment and script thoroughly for theme, conflict and catharsis. Then try it again.
I don't want this to sound angry or mean-spirited. But the situation within the film was just lousy with potential for a better film. It was all wasted. And that's a shame.
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