Donny’s Bar Mitzvah


The big man gets the big chair.

(2021) Comedy (Circle Collective) Steele Stebbins, Danny Trejo, Jeremy Tardy, Adrian Ciscato, Zemyhe Curtis, Joshua Gonzales, Wendy Braun, Regan Burns, Jennifer Sorenson, Michael Patrick McGill, Adam Herschman, Tricia O’Kelley, John DeLuca, Jessica Renee Russell, Radek Wallace Lord, Isabelle Anaya, Connor Del Rio, Eugene Kim, Judilin Bosita, Noureen DeWulf, Aundrea Smith. Directed by Jonathan Kaufman

 

It’s 1998 and social media hasn’t yet become the force it is today. Donny (Stebbins) is a nice Jewish boy about to become a nice Jewish man, at least in terms of his faith. Looking at the adults around him, it’s hard to figure out who the grown-ups are.

Shot from the point of view of a videographer using a camcorder (the film is even shot in the 1.33:1 ratio standard for camcorders of the era), Donny’s Bar Mitzvah follows several plot lines such as Donny’s brother Bobby (DeLuca) getting his mother’s friend Susie (O’Kelley) pregnant after a quickie in the venue bathroom – a pregnancy which goes through its entire process in the course of the night. Then there’s Donny’s sister who is the beard for gay Gary (Herschman). Or there’s emcee Gerald (Tardy) who has a thing for his co-worker Gigi (Smith) but it turns out that she’s just Danny Trejo (Trejo) in disguise and Trejo is actually a federal agent chasing a nefarious criminal known as the party pooper who it turns out is, umm, aptly named. Also, you get to meet Mr. Wang (Kim) and his wife (Bosita) attending their first bar mitzvah, whose shocked and uncomfortable expressions likely mirrored my own.

There’s Donny and some of his friends trying to learn a dance routine but protesting that Jews can’t dance, or the overbearing mom, the interfering grandmother trying to matchmake or a thousand other stereotypical cliches which were passé even in 1998. And the film is jampacked from start to finish with raunchy, vulgar sex jokes. One gets the sense that Kaufman is trying to go for a cross between the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow with a dash of John Hughes thrown in for flavor.

I have no problem with raunchy comedies, although the more prudish among you might find the humor here overbearing, but I’m not so much a raunch for raunch’s sake kind of guy. I need my comedy to be funny and not merely amusing. Kaufman adopts the “throw as many jokes and bits against the celluloid wall and see what sticks” school of filmmaking founded by ZAZ back in the day. The pacing is a bit haphazard, moving in fits and starts despite the constant barrage of jokes. On the plus side, though, there appears to be some actual ideas in the background, from the concept that parties of this nature are more status symbols for the parents than celebrations of their children. The movie could have used a few more of these.

This isn’t a movie for everybody, simply because Kaufman tries so hard to push the envelope which is unnecessary for a good movie. As this is his first feature, he’ll doubtlessly learn that pretty quickly and concentrate on just making a terrific movie, and something tells me he actually will. But this ain’t it.

REASONS TO SEE: Pokes fun at the “we’re doing it for our kids” culture. There are some profound ideas among all the grossness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing can be compared to a car with carburetor problems. Tries too hard to be outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity and vulgarity including sexual references, nudity, violence and drug use, most involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Jonathan Kaufman cameos as a super awkward bartender under the pseudonym Jonny Comebacks.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Superbad
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Fever

Vacation


Some swimming holes are best left alone.

Some swimming holes are best left alone.

(2015) Comedy (New Line) Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Leslie Mann, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Charlie Day, Catherine Missal, Ron Livingston, Norman Reedus, Keegan-Michael Key, Regina Hall, Emyri Crutchfield, Alkoya Brunson, Nick Kroll, Tim Heidecker, Michael Pena, Colin Hanks, Kaitlin Olson, Hanna Davis, Kristin Ford. Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein

Vacations are the source of a good percentage of our fondest memories. Who can forget that road trip to a national park, or to Disney World, or that trip to grandma’s house in the country? These are memories we carry with us for a lifetime.

Rusty Griswold (Helms) can vouch for that. As a pilot for a small commuter airline, he is used to flights in which the final descent begins five minutes after take-off. He is a decent sort, if a little bit on the white bread side. He has two kids; James (Gisondo) is the eldest who wants nothing more than to play guitar and daydream. The other one, Kevin (Stebbins) who might well have been named Satan, bullies his older brother unmercifully and doesn’t really have respect for anyone to be honest. His wife Debbie (Applegate) is beautiful but the spark has gone out of their marriage in a big way.

Rusty decides that rather than go to the same Michigan cabin the family has gone to for years on their vacation, he’d take a page out of his own scrapbook and take his family on a road trip to Southern California’s best theme park, Wally World.

However, his family is less than enthusiastic about the idea, especially when he turns up in a rented van, from the Honda of Albania with a key fob that does everything but what normal key fobs do. It is the only vehicle where the cup holders are on the outside of the car and comes with a self-destruct mechanism, which can be activated by pressing the swastika button on the fob.

Getting to Wally World will include detours to the most vile hot springs on earth, a visit with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Mann) and her hunky meteorologist husband Stone Crandall (Hemsworth) who is more than happy to see Debbie, a visit to Debbie’s old sorority house in Memphis where Rusty learns a few things about his wife that he never knew, a stop to go white water kayaking in the Grand Canyon with a guide (Day) who’s having a horrible day, and finally, a stop in San Francisco to visit some familiar faces.

This is a peculiar entry into the franchise as it is both a reboot and a sequel; it’s a reboot in the sense that it is a brand new entry in the franchise after years of inactivity with an entirely new cast, and it takes place where the events of National Lampoon’s Vacation and its sequel happened. It can even be said to be a remake since the plot of this one is essentially the same as the first.

Ed Helms, the sixth actor to play Rusty (which is some kind of record), takes over for Chevy Chase as the head of the Griswold clan. Like Clark, Rusty is both optimistic and oblivious. He tries to do what’s best for his family but often overlooks not just what his family wants but simple common sense as well. He, like his dad before him, is the king of good intentions gone bad. Helms is a terrific comic actor who not only highlighted the Hangover franchise but was amazing as a lead in Cedar Rapids as well. This is less successful in that sense but not because of anything Helms did or didn’t do; we’ll get into that in a minute.

Applegate, like Beverly D’Angelo before her, is a gorgeous blonde who tries to reign in her husband’s quirkier inclinations but unlike the Ellen Griswold character, Debbie isn’t happy in her marriage. Given her wild past, that’s not unexpected. Applegate is one of the most underrated leading ladies out there, particularly in the comedy genre. She has great comic timing, is sexy as all get out and can play just about any character she chooses to. She doesn’t get the leading roles that a Tina Fey or an Amy Poehler might get (or even a Cameron Diaz) but she is to comedies what Maria Bello is to dramas; a strong, beautiful and desirable performer who never upstages the lead.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent with plenty of cameos by fairly well-known names (although I must admit that the Chase/D’Angelo cameo was the most welcome) but the best support actually comes from Stebbins as the badger of an 8-year-old who humiliates his teenage brother and is essentially an unholy terror. Some of the best moments in the movie are his.

The humor here is like a lot of comedies, very hit or miss depending on your sense of humor. There is a lot of scatological jokes and plenty of rude, crude bits that may either delight your inner twelve-year-old boy or cause you to purse your lips in distaste. Many of the best jokes (the hot springs incident) are spoiled by their appearance in the trailer sadly, so be warned. They do get the family bonds thing right, so in that sense this movie has the same vibe as its 1983 predecessor. That much is entirely welcome.

This isn’t the greatest comedy you’ll see this summer. It isn’t even the best of the Vacation movies, albeit it is the first without the National Lampoon label. However, it has enough going on that’s good to give it a mild recommendation. Think of it as less of a Vacation and more of a weekend getaway.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes are genuinely funny – most of them appear in the trailer. Helms and Applegate are always engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: Very, very hit and miss. Something of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude humor, sexual situations, brief graphic nudity and foul language throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released on the same day as the original – July 29 – only 32 years later.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: National Lampoon’s Vacation
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Walt Before Mickey