MENASHE – Review
As the Summer season winds down, a new independent flick enters the box office arena concerning the challenges of single parenting. Oh, and this is from a male viewpoint, but it’s not a heart-tugging comedy that will make moviegoers recall THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (the flick with Glenn Ford or the TV version with Bill Bixby), which helped inspire several sitcoms like “Bachelor Father” and “My Three Sons”. Yes, it’s about a widower, thought its main concern isn’t the search for a new mate (it does factor in a bit). The film is set in New York, but its language gives the story a decided foreign feel. Most of the dialogue (about 95%) is in Yiddish, as the world of Brooklyn’s ultra-orthodox Jewish community is the home of a man (well, almost a Mensch) named Menashe.
The story begins in the bustling early morning hours on the streets of Borough Park. Floating in a sea of bearded men wearing long black coats (rekels) and black hats is Menashe (Menashe Lustig) , a bespectacled bear of a man sans coat with a black vest over his long-sleeved white shirt, a tzitzit around his formidable waist, and a black yarmulke covering his head. Later we learn that his attire reflects his adherence to many, but not all, Haredi tradition. Menashe is on his way to his menial job as a cashier, stock man, and janitor at a busy neighborhood market. He clashes with the abrasive owner (“You’ll stay late and mop, customers are noticing!”) while counting the minutes till his shift ends. That’s when he tries to pick up his 12 year-old son Rieven (Ruben Nidorski). But Menashe is not taking him back to his very modest studio apartment. When his young wife recently died the Rabbi (Meyer Schwartz) decreed that Rieven must live in a traditional household, namely the plush house of Menashe’s surly brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his wife and kids. This is until Menashe remarries, but he half-heartedly goes on arranged meetings through his matchmaker. When Eizik plans a memorial dinner for his late sister at his home, Menashe reaches the breaking point. He insists he will handle the memorial at his tiny studio walk-up. Maybe this will show Eizik and the Rabbi that he can provide the proper home for Rieven. But due to Menashe’s blunders and calamities, the opposite may happen, and his boy could become even less accessible.
Lustig delivers a confident, energetic performance, perhaps because the script is loosely based on his own life (shades of THE BIG SICK). For many of his slapstick antics, and his interactions with his on-screen son, Lustig evokes the gentle humor of John Candy. Fortunately he also has the dramatic skills needed for Menashe’s many confrontations (with his boss, with his brother-in-law). He’s endearing, but also more than a bit frustrating as he insists on hosting the big remembrance of his spouse. As I said, the scenes with his boy are very strong thanks in no small part to the honest, unaffected acting of young Nidorski. He adores his father, while showing us that he needs more stability in his life, prompting him to “act out” as many pre-teens would. Weisshaus, in the opening scenes, appears to be the “villain”, that immovable foe coming between “our hero” and his boy, though Eizik is more complicated than that. He seems to lash out from a repressed grief for his sister, wanting to honor her by getting her hubby to do what’s right by her memory and their progeny. The same can be said for Schwartz as the firm Rabbi, who tries to mediate between the sparing men, then surprising us with his kindness and sympathy.
Director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein expertly guides us through this exotic “other-world” that’s right in the US’s biggest metropolis. There is a brief scene in English (an after hours beverage with the hispanic stockmen), but otherwise we’re throughly immersed in the culture. While many film makers might give us a one-sided view of this faith, Weinstein presents a, pardon the old cliché’, fair and balance picture of this society. Yes it can be rigid and strict, but when a father is adrift (cake and Coke for breakfast), a little kick in the tukhus in just what the doctor, or rabbi, ordered. And that’s just what MENASHE needed.
4 Out of 5
MENASHE opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac Cinemas