By now, it has become a familiar, stale routine, its annual appearance almost as dependable as the holidays themselves: the holiday-themed family film. Often starring Tim Allen, or a passel of indie stars looking for a big-budget payday, these films almost inevitably concern a squabbling family forcibly brought together for Christmas (or Thanksgiving or Easter), close quarters leading to tension, angry outbursts, open warfare, and eventually a tidy resolution to all difficulties. These films play a delicate double game, acknowledging the sour discontent at the heart of so many American families while also providing shots of hard-won familial harmony for those craving happy endings. "Home for the Holidays," "Christmas with the Kranks," "Surviving Christmas"-- these are just some of the recent films that seek entertainment in the mundane mingled pleasures and terrors of family togetherness.
Transposing the template of the Christmas film to a Jewish family's Passover seder, the new independent film "When Do We Eat?" is an attempt to make a holiday-friendly movie on the Christmas model for a Jewish audience. Director and co-writer Salvador Litvak takes every hoary Jew-cliché he can dig up and piles it into his messy, unwieldy, wildly uneven comedy.
The everything-and-the-kitchen-sink script bundles it all together: father Ira (Michael Lerner) is a rageaholic who runs a Christmas-ornament company; mother Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren) openly carries on an affair with her Israeli handyman; Grandpa (Jack Klugman) is an Old Country immigrant still despondent over the loss of his family in the Holocaust; daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby) is an unconventional sex therapist; son Zeke (Ben Feldman) is a semi-recovering druggie; semi-estranged daughter Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn) is a bitter lesbian intent on blaming Ira for all her problems; youngest son Lionel (Adam Lamberg) is a borderline-autistic problem child; and worst of all for Ira, former favorite son Ethan (Max Greenfield), once a budding New Economy entrepreneur, is now an ultra-Orthodox wannabe.
Like its Christmas counterparts, "When Do We Eat?" mostly sticks to the script of a dysfunctional family brought together by holiday ritual. Unlike those films, its ritual is far more explicitly religious than most onscreen depictions of Christmas. Ira is world-renowned for running the world’s fastest Passover seder, and the bulk of "When Do We Eat?"takes place at that seder table, with the holiday’s rituals folded into every nook and cranny of the film’s dialogue and setting. The film expects a certain degree of familiarity with Jewish ritual for intelligibility; while it includes some Gentile and/or unaware characters to allow the uninitiated to be filled in, Litvak and Nina Davidovich’s script is sophisticated in its use of Jewish thought and practice as a running theme.
Which is not to say that "When Do We Eat?" is a sophisticated film. On the contrary, its other, less explicit influence--besides the Christmas films--is the oeuvre of gross-out kings, the Farrelly brothers. "When Do We Eat?"has a potty mouth and a dirty mind, crammed full of urine tests, druggings, semi-incestuous sexual flings, and cruel practical jokes. The film lets loose a constant barrage of off-color humor, as if to distract us from the religious business at hand.
Annoyed by his seriously problem-ridden family, stress case Ira intends to blast through the seder, strenuously attempt to avoid conflict with Ethan--whose newfound religiosity irks him no end--and clear the house of his impossible family as quickly as possible. Instead, Zeke, in a fit of pique, decides to dose his father with one of the Ecstasy tablets he had purchased earlier in the day. Ira’s rapid-fire seder becomes a mystical religious experience, his table magically transported to the Judean desert, surrounded by pillars of fire and the singing priests of the Temple. His family laments dad’s bad trip, but Ira sees a golden light connecting people when they reach out to each other and dissipating into nothingness when battered by conflict. His vision convinces him of the error of his ways, and he seeks, over the course of the evening, to undo the damage he has done to his family.
"When Do We Eat?" is a film that looks to have it both ways, religiously speaking. Seeing Ethan’s newfound religiosity as a badly fitting suit of clothes, it pokes fun at his semi-serious attachment to his rebbe’s mystical pronouncements and legal rulings. The rebbe seems to have a pithy saying or bit of wisdom for every occasion, and "When Do We Eat?" takes pleasure in Ira’s malicious demolishing of Ethan’s pseudo-wisdom, and in Ethan’s own moral deficiencies, giving in to his lustful attraction to his glamorous cousin Vanessa (Mili Avital).
Nonetheless, when Ira sees the light himself, his vision looks and sounds suspiciously like the New Age mumbo jumbo of Ethan’s unseen spiritual guide. Ira becomes a modern-day Moses, and his family the equivalent of the Biblical Israelites, ragged, disorganized, scheming, and in need of strong leadership. When this agenda crashes and burns into a morass of intra-familial bickering, the filmmakers’ strong hand smites the characters back into shape, guiding them into position for a salvaging-the-holiday montage scored to classic Jewish ditty “Ki Ba Moed (For the Holiday Comes).” "When Do We Eat?"serves from the same timeworn holiday platter familiar from the Christmas films, where a screwed-up family finds salvation in tradition and togetherness.
The difference here is that Litvak and Davidovich view their film as an appropriate forum for solving all of the Jewish community’s problems, from intermarriage to religious-secular hostility to the unresolved anguish of Ira’s Holocaust-survivor father. It would seem to be a fairly ironclad rule of artistic endeavor that sexual-dysfunction jokes and the Holocaust do not belong in the same film; it would probably be safest to not even shelve the two topics in the same wing of the video store. By such rigorous standards of aesthetics, it would be difficult to classify "When Do We Eat?" as anything other than a poor film--a near-complete misfire. And yet, like its Christian counterparts, "When Do We Eat?"possesses the charm of its familiarity. Ridiculous but strangely enjoyable, the film seeks to include Jews within the salad bowl of American life by virtue of being every bit as dysfunctional and ill-adjusted as their Christian compatriots. In that sense, it is a true-blue American holiday film.