When Do We Eat?

on April 07, 2006 by Mark Keizer
As proof that Jews have completed assimilated into American life, they now have their very own dysfunctional-family holiday film. "When Do We Eat?", the feature debut of director Salvador Litvak, is a big-hearted but needlessly frantic look at Passover with the Stuckmans. Those who've endured many a monotonous Passover Seder will find bits and pieces of familiarity. But Litvak crams so many earth-shattering revelations and long-buried resentments into 93 minutes that the film feels as if it's struggling to provide something recognizable to every potential ticket buyer. However, a strong ensemble cast and some target-specific Semitic passages should tickle the picture's limited audience.

Stuckman patriarch Ira (Michael Lerner) gave up the family hat-making business to manufacture Christmas ornaments, a veritable apostasy to his Holocaust-surviving father Artur (Jack Klugman). Ira's wife Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren) frets over every last detail of that night's Seder and soon we learn why. In attendance for the first time in three years will be her son Ethan (Max Greenfield), who has turned Hassidic and expects a traditional holiday ceremony. The Stuckman brood eventually files in and it's quite a parade: Ira and Peggy's children also include autistic son Lionel (Adam Lamberg), drug-popping high schooler Zeke (Ben Feldman) and professional sex surrogate Nikki (Shiri Appleby). There's also cousin and celebrity-publicist Vanessa (Mili Avital), Ira's lesbian daughter Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn) and her African-American girlfriend Grace (Cynda Williams). Finally, there's Rafi (Mark Ivanir), the Israeli handyman who stays for dinner after building the tent in which the Seder will be performed. That's a truckload of characters and without a proper build we don't get enough time to settle in before the fireworks start.

It speaks well of the cast that everyone makes their presence known. The biggest impact is made by Greenfield, whose character may be newly Hassidic, but that doesn't stop him from succumbing to the borderline incestuous charms of Vanessa, his first-removed cousin. Bringing nice energy to the table is Feldman, whose Zeke may someday lead future Seders, a scary thought after he spikes his father's Pepto Bismol with a tab of Ecstasy. Ira presiding over the ceremony while tripping on E is indicative of the film that comedically overreaches in its assumption that frenzied equals funny. Ira's E-ticket ride makes him realize his fatherly failings, but when a revelation comes in such a fashion it's a false triumph, unearned and probably temporary. And when it turns out he's really been grooving on baby aspirin, we're still not sure whether it means Ira has been touched by divinity, or the horseradish is too hot.

It must have taken Moses-like fortitude, but Litvak, co-writing with wife Nina Davidovich, admirably avoids painting his characters with broad brushstrokes of movie Jewishness and easy-laugh stereotypes. From a script standpoint, Ethan is in charge of explaining the ceremony and its meaning. But these are throwaway lines and, by the time the film devolves into family-togetherness sentimentality, Passover means nothing more than an excuse to congregate, argue and then make up. There is some nice material about how everyone has personal Pharaohs, internal or external demons who keep us enslaved. Otherwise, the Stuckmans would have had most of the same arguments at Thanksgiving. Starring Michael Lerner, Lesley Ann Warren and Jack Klugman. Directed by Salvador Litvak. Written by Nina Davidovich and Salvador Litvak. Produced by Steven J. Wolfe and Salvador Litvak. A ThinkFilm release. Comedy. Rated R for drug use, language and some sexual content. Running time: 93 min

Tags: Judaism, Passover, family drama, Salvador Litvak, Michael Lerner, Jack Klugman, Lesley Ann Warren, Max Greenfield, Adam Lamberg, Ben Feldman, Mili Avatal, Shiri Appleby, Meredith Scott Lynn

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