Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

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Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

The Farewell


A happy family portrait.

(2019) Dramedy (A24) Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhou, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Yongbo Jiang, X-Mayo, Hong Lu, Gil Perez-Abraham, Becca Khalil, Ines Laimins. Directed by Lulu Wang

 

It is inevitable as we journey through our lives that we will lose loved ones. The natural order of things is that we age, grow old and die so those who were put on this Earth before us finish their cycles before we do. We have to come to grips with their mortality and in doing so, our own. It is hardest sometimes for those who are young to truly understand that those around them are neither invincible nor immortal.

Billi (Awkwafina) is an underachieving Chinese-American writer whose parents emigrated to this country when she was a little girl, tearing her away from the culture she knew and the family she loved, in particular her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhou). Even as a grown woman, she still telephones her grandmother regularly and remains close even though she hasn’t seen her in years.

One day while home doing laundry, she discovers her father (Ma) disconsolate in his bedroom and demands to know what’s wrong. It turns out Nai Nai – his mother – has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live, maybe only weeks. Billi is devastated of course but she is further thrown for a loop when she discovers that Nai Nai hasn’t been told the truth about her condition – a Chinese tradition in which the family takes on the burden of knowing and worrying about the impending mortality of a loved one.

The marriage of a hapless cousin, Hao Hao (Chen) to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Mizuhara) is used as an excuse to bring the family to Changchun where Nai Nai lives. Billi is eager to go to say farewell to her grandmother but her mother (Lin) is adamant; Nai Nai must remain ignorant about her condition and Billi is sure to give away her grief, being an emotional sort.

Naturally Billi goes anyway and Nai Nai is absolutely delighted. She’s totally in her element, planning everything having to do with the ceremony and the reception, arguing with the caterers over whether crab or lobster is to be served. Billi agrees to hold her tongue but it’s hard not for her to be melancholy from time to time. It’s the rest of the family though that has trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Billi has issues regarding the move to America. China has changed to an incredible degree and isn’t a country she recognizes. Her connection with Nai Nai is her connection to her heritage and it is part of her identity. The Farewell allows us – and director Lulu Wang, whose life and experiences this is based on – to explore the tightrope that Chinese-Americans must often walk to reconcile the cultures of their background and of their present circumstances.

Awkwafina, a rapper who started out as comic relief in films like Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians is absolutely devastating here. This is the kind of performance that establishes careers and can net an actress plum roles. Billi is a nuanced individual, caught between two cultures and not really sure which one she identifies with most. Her self-worth has taken a beating, mostly due to her overbearing hyper-critical mother. She believes strongly that her Nai Nai should be told the truth about her condition and she has trouble justifying the lie, yet she keeps a big secret of her own. At the end Billi embraces both sides of her identity and it is beautiful to see. Zhou and Ma give Awkwafina some great support and the onscreen relationships feel totally real.

It is no secret how much the Chinese culture values family above all else and for those Westerners who don’t understand that, the difference between East and West is succinctly explained here. Even so, there is a universal aspect to families; we all have members of our family we treasure and others we see only on rare occasions (and that’s just fine with us) while there are still others we barely know. I think you’ll find that the family gathering here will seem very familiar in a lot of ways to most of you, even if there are some cultural differences – like karaoke. Just don’t try to make sense of all the cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends.

This is a movie that has heart and comes by its emotional responses honestly. You don’t get a sense of being manipulated here; nonetheless this will resonate, particularly with those who have lost a beloved grandparent. I was very much reminded of the last time I saw my grandmother alive in Winnipeg. I did get a chance to say goodbye to her which was a very good thing even though she wasn’t in a terminal stage yet. I’ve never forgotten my Baba and how warm and loved she made me feel. Grandmothers are like that, you know.

This looks to become a major indie hit for A24 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a wider release than it is already enjoying. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the film got some recognition come Oscar nomination time, particularly for Awkwafina but maybe for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Zhou) and Best Picture. Cinephiles should make a beeline to the box office for this one as should anyone who has ever loved their grandmother, particularly if that grandmother is still alive. You definitely need to appreciate her while she’s still around.

REASONS TO SEE: The story struck a huge chord in me. Awkwafina is absolutely amazing here. This is not a tourist version of China but a peek into the everyday lives of Chinese people.
REASONS TO AVOID: Got a little bit hard to figure out who was who in terms of the relatives.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some serious adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film made its limited release debut on July 12, it beat out Avengers: Endgame for the largest per-screen average of the year to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Lamp Light

Ocean’s 8


Back in black.

(2018) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Elliott Gould, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Richard Armitrage, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Dakota Fanning, Sarah Paulson, James Corden, Dana Ivey, Elizabeth Ashley, Marlo Thomas, Charlotte Kirk, Whitney White, Charles Prendergast, Damian Young, Talia Cuomo. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Sure, we need more films with empowered women doing what men do. The Ocean’s trilogy had an A-list all-star cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac and so on and so forth. Why should they have all the fun?

Indeed, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove that girls just wanna have fun too but the movie is sorely lacking in the presence of Steven Soderbergh, who wrote snappy dialogue, created a retro mood that recalled the Rat Pack that made the original Ocean’s 11 and let the men loose in Sin City – obviously the cast was having a great time with one another.

Sadly, this heist movie involving the theft of a fabulous Cartier diamond necklace from the equally fabulous Met Gala party annually hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour (who cameos as herself, one of a raft of cameos) fails to deliver the goods. As much as the Oceans trilogy felt like all involved were having a great time, this one feels like just another job. The bonding never feels authentic and the chemistry is sorely lacking. Like the distaff version of Ghostbusters back in 2016, the movie feels less of an ensemble and more of a collection of actresses. Don’t get me wrong – some of the sequences here are done with the kind of clever wit that the Oceans films are known for and the movie is entertaining in its own right and it makes some salient points about our celebrity-obsessed culture but it doesn’t hold up to any of its predecessors except maybe the least of the series, Oceans 13.

Part of the problem is that I think the expectations for a distaff version of an established and beloved franchise is that the movie will replicate the feel of the originals and that’s hard enough to do in the first place; throw in that the cast is going to be all-female in a fairly misogynistic society as we have and the movie has two strikes on it before it gets out of the gate. I think that thand their relationships I I think that the biggest mistake that was made here was that short shrift was given to the characters at the expense of a “sisters are doing it for themselves” empowerment narrative and sisters can do it for themselves as Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games have more than proven. It’s a pity that a cast this glittery left me so cold.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelous.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks the camaraderie of the first three films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexually suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gould is the only actor from the first trilogy to appear in this film, scenes were filmed with Carl Reiner and Matt Damon but were both left on the cutting room floor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!

Carmine Street Guitars


Flowers aren’t the gift; flowers come with the gift.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly, Dallas Good, Travis Good, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Eszter Balint, Jim Jarmusch, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, Kirk Douglas, Dave Hill, Eleanor Friedberger, Jamie Hince, Stewart Hurwood, Christine Bougie. Directed by Ron Mann

 

It is sometimes depressing to consider how the world has become so commodified. Everything is product now; mass-produced, soulless, disposable. Hand-crafted items are a rarity now, and becoming rarer by the day. Few people take the time or the effort to make things from scratch.

Rick Kelly is one of those people. He has a storefront in Greenwich Village in New York City; the titular Carmine Street Guitars. There, he and his apprentice Cindy Hulej make guitars the old-fashioned way – by hand. Rick uses wood rescued from buildings that have been demolished, buildings that predate the Civil War and I’m not talking about the Marvel movie.

This documentary ostensibly follows the shop for a week in the life, although it doesn’t ostensibly say so. There are pictures on the wall of some of the store’s famous customers (one, a signed photo of Robert Quine, is crooked and no amount of fiddling will straighten it out) which include the late Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s current guitarist, former New Wave pretty boy Charlie Sexton, drops by to test drive one of Rick’s guitars.

In fact much of the film is people dropping by to check out guitars Rick has made or is making. Those dropping by include Nels Cline of Wilco, there to buy a birthday gift for bandmate Jeff Tweedy; jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell who plays some surf guitar hits from early in his career. Lenny Kaye of the Patty Smith Band also drops by to noodle on a guitar as does avant garde guitarist Marc Ribot. No matter what the style of the guitarist, they all sound pretty amazing on Carmine Street guitars.

This is a stream of consciousness kind of cinema verité; there are no talking head interviews, no animated sequences and there is no archival footage. We are always in the moment during the film; we don’t get a lot of context and are left to manufacture that on our own. Kelly is kind of an ex-hippie who has an almost grandfatherly aspect to him; the guitars are his children and his clients prospective adoptive parents. Hulej is even more interesting than the idiosyncratic Kelly (whose 93-year-old mother answers phones and does the books for the store). A platinum blonde goth punk chick, her extraordinary beauty works for her as a cinematic focal point but against her in her career; she talks frankly with Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces that men often don’t take her seriously because of her looks, particularly as a crafter of guitars.

While Hulej seems to primarily be concerned with burning graphics into the guitars, she can also build them and the sense that these two people are artisans in the best sense of the word also points out that they are a disappearing breed. Watching the two of them at work reminds the viewer that there is something special about those who love what they do and take pride in what they make.

I like that Kelly uses old wood – what he calls “the bones of Old New York” – in his craft. That shows not only a sense of history but also of caring very much about not just where he set up shop but what is sold inside of it. It reminds me why New Yorkers consider their city the greatest on Earth and more importantly, why they have a case for that boast. I know that if I played guitar, I’d want to own one of these. Those who love guitars and the people who play them are very much encouraged to see this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a stream-of-consciousness documentary; no talking heads, no animations. Some great guitar noodling by masters of the craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not have as much appeal for non-guitar junkies.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Strad Style
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

Ode to Joy (2019)


Love means never having to stand in the rain.

(2019) Romantic Comedy (Mosaic) Martin Freeman, Morena Baccarin, Jake Lacy, Melissa Rauch, Jane Curtin, Shannon Woodward, Ellis Rubin, Jackie Selden, Adam Shapiro, Jason Altman, Alex Perez, Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Tyler Bourke, dL Sams. Directed by Jason Winer

Love is a difficult enough proposition without throwing in an exotic illness. The highs, the lows…it’s a real test of our emotional capabilities. It can affect even the best of us in unexpected ways. Those who are especially sensitive…it can be a real war.

Charlie (Freeman) is such a case. He has a rare condition called Cataplexy which affects those who suffer it whenever they are struck by strong emotions. Although portrayed here as a separate disease, it is actually a side effect of narcolepsy. For Charlie, whenever he feels joy, he loses consciousness. That can be a real mood-killer, romantically speaking.

He lives a carefully ordered life, one in which he tries to avoid any situations that might affect him emotionally and the sight of newborn babies will have him reciting lists of the most depressing thigs imaginable. He tries to keep as even a keel as possible, aided by his generally irresponsible younger brother Cooper (Lacy). That all takes a sharp left turn when he meets Francesca (Baccarin). Charlie and Francesca hit it off immediately and soon Charlie takes a chance and asks her out. It seems to go really well until she asks him up to her apartment – and Charlie’s condition makes a very nasty appearance.

Charlie, fearing what might happen, calls things off with Francesca and ends up seeing Bethany (Rauch), a friend of Francesca’s. Cooper, noticing that Francesca is available, starts dating his brother’s ex – except Charlie and Francesca aren’t at all sure that they are with the right partners.

Freeman is a charming lead with oodles of likability. While the chemistry with Baccarin isn’t 100% convincing, it’s a good 95% at least; maybe it’s the imperfections that make the romance at the center of the movie more powerful. While the medical basis for the film is a little bit shaky, it should be remembered that this isn’t meant to be a medical textbook and thus the disease is meant to fit the story rather than the other way around.

At times the dialogue gets a little florid, not unusual in a rom-com although the film valiantly tries and mostly succeeds at avoiding the clichés of the genre. Still, there is plenty of heart here and while I could do without the quirky indie New Yorker tropes, this is actually a heart-warming and charming little film that hopefully will get at least a limited release (it has a distribution deal with a boutique Sony label so there’s that) because this is the kind of movie the world needs more of.

REASONS TO SEE: Not your typical rom-com. Really strong performances all around. Bizarre in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the dialogue is overwrought.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual references and mild profanity as well as a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Freeman and Baccarin have both appeared in Marvel movies; Freeman as Agent Everett Ross, Baccarin as Vanessa Carlyle.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: As Good As It Gets
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Carmine Street Guitars

Ask Dr. Ruth


Dr. Ruth peers out of a train window at her oncoming past.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia/HuluDr. Ruth Westheimer, Pierre Lohu, Joel Westheimer, Cliff Rubin, John Lollos, Lee Salk, Greg Willenburg, Walter Nothmann, Debbie Nothmann, Leora Einleger, Jonathan Capehart, Dallah “Marga” Miller, Shmil Boruchovitz, Betty Elam Brauner, Mina Westheimer, Maurice Tunick, Michael Leckie, Avi Einleger, Jeffrey Tabak, Susan Brown. Directed by Ryan White

 

For most of us, our first sexual experiences are great mysteries preceded by sheer terror followed by an absolute sense of wonder why on earth we had ever been scared of what was such a natural – and pleasurable – act. Generally before going in and learning by doing, our knowledge of sex is woefully light.

Talking about sex just was not – and to a real extent is not – done. After all, who the hell are you going to ask? You really can’t talk to your parents or adult authority figures about it and your friends and peers know less than you do.

And then in the 80s came along Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a 4’7” dynamo who spoke frankly about masturbation, vaginas, dildos and gay sex in a charming German accent. She promoted good sex in ways that were frank, no-bullshit and direct. Yes, we would all blush like high school freshmen when she spoke of proper stimulation of the clitoris or about how tying up your partner wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She was one of the first proponents of sexual acceptance; there is no normal sexuality, just whatever turns you on and that’s your business and nobody else’s other than your sex partner.

Suddenly she was a pop culture icon; authoring dozens of books, hosting a crazy popular radio show and a fixture on late night talk shows. She conversed regularly with Johnny, Conan, Letterman and Arsenio. She was everywhere for a certain amount of time, a kind of brilliant grandmotherly sort who talked about the things none of us would ever talk to our grandmothers about. And, despite fame and wealth, she chose to live in the same Washington Square apartment she’d lived in for decades. She lives there still.

This documentary looks at an amazing cultural phenomenon that was and is Dr. Ruth who is still going strong at 90 years old plus. White follows her around in the days leading to her 90th birthday as she goes on a voyage into her past; back to Frankfurt where she was born, and to Switzerland where her mother and grandmother sent her as part of the kindertransport program that got young Jewish children out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power. She was sent by herself to a Swiss orphanage where she shined shoes and did chores; she wasn’t allowed to attend school at the time. Her only learning came from a former boyfriend who would allow her to read his schoolbooks after dark.

Much of her early story is told through animations here where she is portrayed as a sad, melancholy little girl and of course she had good reason to. She voraciously corresponded with her parents until the letters ominously stopped coming. It wasn’t until recently that she discovered the fate of her parents and grandmother, whom she adored. White’s cameras witness her research and it is a very powerful moment indeed. The animations are beautiful but they are a bit tone-deaf when compared to the big picture.

After the war Ruth went to Israel where she was trained as a sniper (!) until an explosion put shrapnel into her legs. She eventually went to get an education in Paris before moving to New York City where she got a doctorate, despite not having completed high school. She married three times and raised kids. She volunteered to do a radio spot about sex therapy which proved to be wildly popular and thus the legend of Dr. Ruth was born.

Throughout the film we journey back with Dr. Ruth to places significant to her in her past, from Switzerland to Israel to New York. We see that even pushing 90 years old, she remains a force of nature – lecturing, writing and teaching a pair of college classes. She continues to preach the gospel of good sex with her charm unabated despite her years.

Although Dr. Ruth prefers to leave politics out of her message, her message is in many ways political in and of itself, advocating tolerance for lifestyles different than your own, equality for women in the bedroom (and by extension, everywhere else) and that what a woman does with her body is her own business and nobody else’s. Her granddaughter tries to get her to admit to being a feminist but when her grandmother does not, is somewhat taken aback and even a little bit hurt by it. The thing of the matter is that while Dr. Ruth doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she has had a massive effect on the feminist movement.

It’s interesting to me that Dr. Ruth is, in many ways, less in touch with her own emotions than she is with everyone else’s. She does play things very close to the vest and while she’s open and candid about many of the events of her life, we get a sense of distance from who she really is as a person. For the most part all we see is the public persona of the famed sex therapist and perhaps that’s enough, although I might have wished for more.

Still in all, this is a well-made, well-researched documentary on a public figure who really hasn’t gotten her due in many ways. Because she talked so candidly about sex, there was a tendency not to take her as seriously as her accomplishments merited – too many jokes on Carson and Letterman perhaps contributed to that. While the overall tone might be a little bit more worshipful than I would have liked, nonetheless this is a fairly thorough examination of one of the most important pop culture figures of the last thirty years. Besides all that, her energy, her pixie-like sense of humor and her sheer good will are very energizing even on a TV or movie screen; this is certainly a worthy tonic for those in need of a pick-me-up.

Orlando readers will have to drive out to the Cinematique in Daytona in order to see this on the big screen; readers in South Florida are more fortunate in that the film is playing in various places around the region including the Miami Dade College Tower Theater and the Living Room Theater at Florida Atlantic University. It is also available at the Movies of Delray Beach and the Movies of Lake Worth while in the Tampa area it can be seen at the Tampa Theater downtown and the Burns Court Cinema in Sarasota. It is also playing in several other theaters around the state – check your local listings. If you don’t live close to any of those theaters, you’ll just have to wait until June 1 when the film will debut on Hulu.

REASONS TO SEE: The energy and humor of Dr. Ruth are infectious. Some of the moments here are devastating.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film is a little bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as frank sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in Frankfurt back in 1928; she started using her middle name Ruth following the war.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kinsey
FINAL RATING: 7/10
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Clara