Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Film preview: The Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival


By Hap Erstein

If you have recovered from Black Friday and Cyber Monday, take a breather and enjoy another tradition of the season, the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival (Dec. 3-14). Now in its 19th year, it remains the area’s most consistently high quality conglomeration of movies, thanks largely to the efforts of its director Karen Davis, who has the enviable job of jetting off to festivals in Berlin and Jerusalem in search of entries for the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Palm Beaches’ annual event.

This year, it has expanded to 12 days, beginning Wednesday with a two-night showcase of James Sherman’s Beau Jest. Based on his wildly popular sitcom stage play that was all over South Florida about a decade ago, this is surely the most lightweight and potentially commercial opening selection in the festival’s history.

The premise: An insecure young Jewish woman has been dating a Gentile guy, but lying to her parents, telling them she is getting serious with a Jewish doctor. When her folks insist on having the couple over for dinner, the daughter hires an actor to play the part. The problem is the rent-a-date is not Jewish either and all he knows about the religion he learned from being in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Cute idea, but it wears thin.

The film’s marketers would not mind in the least if Beau Jest were thought of as the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding, just like every other ethnic romantic comedy that came out after it. Helping that dubious comparison is the casting of Lainie Kazan as the girl’s meddling mother. The PBJFF usually features more substantial fare, but look for this kick-off feature to be a real crowd-pleaser.

It may be a coincidence or a concerted effort to attract a larger, wider audience, but this year’s festival includes numerous box office name performers, though in small, independent, Jewish-themed movies.

* Seymour Cassel plays Kazan’s ineffectual husband in Beau Jest, with Willie Garson (of Sex and the City) in support.

* Oscar winner Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow are all in Emotional Arithmetic, a reunion drama about former friends meeting again decades after their release from Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris during World War II. Those actors have got to mean the film is watchable, but it has been in limbo for a long while, unable to get theatrical distribution.

* Toni Collette (The Hours, the recent Towelhead) is an actress genetically incapable of giving an uninteresting performance. She is teamed with Keisha Castle-Hughes, the stunning young star of 2002’s Whale Rider in the festival’s final night feature, Hey! Hey! It’s Esther Blueberger. It’s a coming-of-age comedy about a misfit who befriends a duck, talks to God through the toilet and break-dances at her bat mitzvah. Oy.

Davis points out that two of the festival’s 36 films have local connections. Holy Land Hardball is exactly what it sounds like, a look at the Israeli Baseball League, which Palm Beach Gardens law student Matthew Comiter played in. And Refusenik, an acclaimed documentary on the struggle to free Soviet Jews, an effort that has consumed Palm Beach attorney Stephen Cohen, who helped gain the release of human rights activist Natan Sharansky.

The two main venues for festival screenings will again be the Cobb Downtown 16 in The Gardens and the Regal Delray 18, but the PBJFF is also testing the popularity of the Reel world 8 of Wellington, where the Jewish Community Center has a relatively new branch.

Ticket prices range from $8 (for matinees) to $18 (for opening night). For the complete schedule, go to www.palmbeachjewishfilm.org or call (561) 712-5201.

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