Being Jewish on the American screen has always meant suffering indignities, whether historical, as in The Life of Emile Zola, or hysterical, as when Sam Goldwyn (né Goldfish) forced Danny Kaye (né Kaminsky) to bleach his hair blond because, “Let’s face it, Jews are funny looking.” Tough as it’s been to be openly Jewish, it’s always been worse to be Orthodox. By the end of The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson gets to conquer the stage (and his Yiddishe mama), but his stern cantor father who ordered him out of the house conveniently drops dead — assimilate, you win; don’t, you die. Orthodox Jews have rarely made it onto the screen since then, and when they have, it’s either to embody shtetl nostalgia or to personify comic otherness, as with the Hasid who inexplicably pops up in Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper to count drug money.
A Price Above Rubies is about a Hasidic woman who breaks free of her religion in order to find herself. The film’s twist is that the hardship endured by the lead character, Sonia (Renée Zellweger), isn’t that she’s a Jew but that she’s a Hasid. Raised for wifehood in Muncie, Sonia has moved to Brooklyn to marry Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a devout Talmudic scholar with an otherworldly brittleness. When the film opens, Sonia, who’s recently given birth to a son, is cranky and skittish, overwhelmed by hot flashes and the legions of in-laws and neighbors who always seem to be crowding around her.
Sonia’s symptoms suggest acute post-partum depression, but writer-director Boaz Yakin isn’t interested in liberating the character from her moods: He wants to save her from the entirety of her religious and social milieu, from the pushy women, weasely men, too-long skirts and sensible shoes. Sonia is unhappy because she’s sexually repressed — Mendel refuses to caress her, in bed or out. And repressed she remains, because no one in the community recognizes her plight. “There’s a fire inside me,” Sonia whimpers to the grand rebbe, before declaring her personhood to another rabbi-cum-psychologist: “I’m going to question whatever I want to!” In this Orthodox doll’s house of cramped quarters and two-shots, the problem doesn’t originate with Sonia her self (who can’t begin to articulate her needs, but gets angry when no one else can, either), her crummy marriage or the world, but rather with the Hasidim.
To critique a culture through the individual is to risk being reductive, but artists are entitled to the risk. The problem is that there’s no art to Yakin’s approach, only cliché. Not content merely to bowdlerize Ibsen, he turns his movie into Diary of a Mad Ha sid: First Sonia confusingly tries to soul kiss her sister-in-law, Rachel (Julianna Margulies), then begins shtupping Mendel’s predator brother, Sender (Christ opher Eccles ton), who subsequently hires her as a jewelry buyer. Like his pious brother, Sender is unalloyed stereotype. He not only cheats on his wife and lies to his brother, but operates an illegal business and insinuates that it’s okay to steal from non-Jews — and he has plastic on his furniture. The only thing that makes him recognizably human is Eccleston, whose feral eyes and physicality hint at a depth missing from Yakin’s dialogue.
Sonia loves this new taste of freedom (and a non-kosher egg roll), but unfortunately Sender’s fucking is similar to Mendel’s davening — a private ritual to which she’s uninvited. The bigger trouble is that from the get-go, Sonia never feels as if she belongs in the Hasidic world; she’s as uncomfortable at the back of a synagogue as standing in her own kitchen or riding shotgun in Mendel’s battered station wagon. The character doesn’t seem just alienated, she seems alien — as if newly landed from Mars, or Bridge port, Connecticut. Early in the film, at her son’s circumcision, Sonia clutches the child to her breast and declares, “They’re going to sacrifice my baby!” The scene borders on blood-libel burlesque, but mainly it’s a betrayal of a character who was raised Orthodox. Not since Melanie Griffith discovered her inner Hasid in A Stranger Among Us has a character seemed as radically out of place in her own movie.
There’s an interesting, thoughtful film to be made about what it means to be a woman and Hasidic, but A Price Above Rubies isn’t that film. Indeed, Yakin’s second feature — his first was the lavishly praised Fresh — is so coarse that it confounds not just sense (Why did Sonia marry Mendel? Why isn’t Margulies playing Sonia?), but its status as an independent production. Independent of what? Cer tainly not of crude stereotype, howlingly bad writing and lackluster direction. Here, even God gets the shaft. Yakin raises the currently trendy topic of Jewish mysticism — Sonia’s dead younger brother and a mysterious wandering woman show up repeatedly for a chat — but leaves Sonia’s inner religious life unexplored. Instead of a genuine searcher, the character comes off like an overweening brat in need of either a good spanking or a good lay, possibly both. By the time Sonia meets the muscled Puerto Rican sculptor who gives her exactly what she needs, it seems as if the only reason she’s picked a fight with God is so she can toss that damn wig.
In his true-life film about four brothers who robbed banks out West during the late teens and early ’20s, Richard Linklater seems to achieve the impossible: He makes Ethan Hawke bearable. He also manages to transform Skeet Ulrich and Dwight Yoakam into more compelling screen presences than the wildly gifted Vincent D’Onofrio, and makes a life devoted to theft, booze and women seem awfully dull. About the only things in the film that don’t come as a complete surprise are the delight of seeing Chloe Webb onscreen again (if only for a short while) and the enervation of Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Willis, the second eldest Newton boy and mastermind of their adventures in crime.
Although the movie’s beefcake poster suggests otherwise, there are no leading roles in The Newton Boys outside McConaughey’s, which is unfortunate since his is the least vital performance in this strangely unenergetic story. Part of the problem is that both the film and the characters are too nice, or at least too unformed: Hawke’s brother drinks and gambles, without anything being at stake; Ulrich’s looks watchful, D’Onofrio’s lost, McConaughey’s determined. All four smile a lot. McCon aughey earns the lion’s share of the dialogue, but there’s nothing in the script (by Linklater, Claude Stanush and Clark Lee Walker) that illuminates the character, his relationships, including that with his lover (Julianna Margulies, wasted here as well), or his sense of the world. It’s like watching a movie with four Sundance Kids, not a Butch Cassidy among them; worse yet, it’s like watching a movie with four Robert Redfords.
Linklater can be good with actors: In Before Sunrise, he directed Julie Delpy to as great advantage as Krzysztof Kieslowski did in White, and there are moments in The Newton Boys, specifically with Webb and Yoakam, Ulrich and Hawke, that reveal glimmers of real passion. But Linklater’s Slacker roots are starting to show. For all his nominal interest in movies and movie history, he often seems curiously detached from his own material. There’s something uncommitted about both his stories and his storytelling. When one of the brothers nearly dies during a botched robbery, there’s no fire to the scene, just the logistics of a nighttime shoot and a quartet of carelessly beautiful men making like bandits.
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