Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Mini-Fest
A line-up forms on Arbutus Street, near 16th Avenue, snakes past the Ridge Theatre, and rounds the curb. A smattering of languages is heard throughout the line, including Hebrew, English, Spanish, Russian, and Polish. The crowd is in line to see ‘Beau Jest’, the play-turned-film from writer-director James Sherman.
The premise is simple enough: young schoolteacher Sarah, convinced her Jewish parents still disapprove of her non-Jewish boyfriend Chris, hides their relationship, and hires Bob Shroeder. He is to pose as David, the handsome Jewish doctor that is to accompany Sarah to dinner with her family, and satiate their need to see their daughter with someone “right”. Slight hilarity ensues when Bob reveals he’s not actually Jewish, putting another credibility strain in Sarah’s already wobbly plan.
The plot points and conclusions in most stories like this can be seen eons away, but in the right hands, with a capable cast and producers with a somewhat original vision, the material can take on the right mix of entertainment and sentimentality, and not seem emotionally exploitative. It’s been compared to mega-hit ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’, but aside from sharing a cast member (Lainie Kazan), and a very loose family-culture-clash premise, ‘Beau Jest’ lacks the physical comedy and modest originality that made the former feel fresh.
Throughout ‘Beau Jest’, verbal gags, like naming Sarah’s boyfriend Chris Kringle, pop up, reminding you that ‘Beau Jest’ strives to be a comedy. Yet the biggest laugh probably came right before the screening of the film, from executive producer James Sherman, who was in attendance. He mentioned the lingering questions that may come about from the fact that a Mormon businessman and his wife, from Salt Lake City, Utah, financed a film-based-on-a-play about a young Jewish woman and her search for a (fake) Nice Jewish Young Man.
The weak writing can be cautiously forgiven when it’s in the hands of adequate cast, such as Kazan as the doting mother, and Willie Garson as Sarah’s suspicious brother Joel. The leads of Sarah (Robyn Cohen) and Bob (Tony Daly), while beautiful people and seemingly enjoying themselves, are stage-acting in a feature film. Take the first scene of the film, Sarah explains to boyfriend Chris (Greg Cromer) why her fake-boyfriend scheme is necessary (we’ll leave the contrivances of that very concept aside). The acting in this scene, our introductory scene, no less, is so overemphasized and ‘stage-y’ that I was dangerously close to laughter, assuming that they were trying to parody the very scene they were acting out. This was not the case.
I was most struck by the reception of the audience. Like in any crowded-audience setting, the mildest joke can become an uproarious event, when hundreds of people are laughing at the same time. Tellingly, reflecting the majority of the audience, the best reactions came at Jewish-themed jokes, mostly at the expense of Bob’s failures and triumphs of navigating the customs of the Jewish faith. Indeed, families sitting down for the Seder for Passover may chuckle at some of the adventures Sarah and Bob find themselves in as they navigate various family dinners, including their own Seder. This ‘relatability’ amplifies the often tepid comedy. Other viewers, not necessarily familiar with the cultural and religious customs, can still appreciate some of the culture-clash elements and the occasionally gentle, wide-eyed, sentimental comedy.
Ultimately, what I imagine would be a perfectly fine, if pat, play, becomes a low-budget, cliché-ridden snooze of a film. The premise may have been funny and relatable, but the plot is so steeped in nonsensical reasoning, that the potential is regrettably lost. The creative vision was not there, and the final product presents something we’ve not only seen before, but seen much better.
‘Beau Jest’ played as part of the VJFF Mini-Fest in late March. To learn more about the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, now held in the fall, check out www.vjff.org.