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

Deli Man: The Movie


Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

Ziggy Gruber works hard at cooking with love.

(2014) Documentary (Cohen Media Group) Ziggy Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Freddie Klein, Dennis Howard, Jay Parker, Fyvush Finkel, Mimi Gruber, J. Mackye Gruber, Freddie Roman, Zane Caplansky, Jane Ziegelman, Michael Wex, Adam Caslow, Alan Dershowitz. Directed by Erik Anjou

In their heyday, there were more than 1500 kosher Jewish delis in New York City alone. Now, there’s a tenth of that in all of North America. The great Jewish deli, once a mainstay of American culture, is slowly dying out.

This is a movie celebrating the deli and they choose for their spokesman David “Ziggy” Gruber, a genial man with a bit of a pot belly and an engaging grin. He also has a genuine passion for delis, having grown up essentially in the business; his grandfather founded the legendary Rialto Deli in Manhattan while his dad owned Long Island’s Woodrow Deli. He was stuffing cabbages as a pre-teen.

He would get himself to the Cordon Bleu Institute in England to learn to be a chef, but it was in the deli that his heart belonged. After going to a meeting of Deli Owners and discovering to his shock that nearly all of the owners were in their 70s and 80s and had nobody taking over for them when they retired, he felt that it was up to him to keep the culture alive and so he founded a deli of his own – in Houston.

Don’t laugh. There is a fairly large Jewish population there, as there is in many big American cities. In any case, his business took off and became a huge hit, to the point where he has been opening new restaurants although to date Kenny and Ziggy’s remains his only deli.

The film centers on Ziggy although it talks to various Deli Men from around North America including men from such legendary places as Cantor’s and Nate ‘n’ Al’s in Los Angeles, 2nd Avenue Deli and Carnegie Deli in New York, Kaplansky’s in Toronto and Manny’s in Chicago. They all admit given the labor-intensive nature of deli food and due to the high price of meat (deli tends to be meat-centric) the low return on investments that are modern delicatessens.

Part of why there are so few delis left is simply attrition. The Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, from where the initial flood of Jewish immigrants came to New York, were all for the most part wiped out in the Holocaust. There are no new immigrants coming to America from that region or at least very few and the children of those who are here aren’t interested in taking over a deli when they could be a doctor or a lawyer. Thus, the recipes for some of these dishes are fast disappearing – Ziggy bemoans that his grandfather’s gravy recipe died with him and that while he can get close, he can’t quite duplicate the taste. It’s easy to understand, given the grueling work schedule of the deli owner, why a lot of modern kids shy away from the business as a career.

The story of the delicatessen is also the story of the Jewish community in America; delis were places that they would gather to eat and became de facto cultural centers for the Jewish faith. For many, it was a taste of home, bringing with it the recipes of the old country – I’ll bet you didn’t know that pastrami was a Romanian invention despite the Italian-sounding name. However, with less and less people coming from the old country, the nostalgia factor has become less compelling and even in Jewish homes the meals that later generations grew up with became more Americanized.

We also see Ziggy, who had been married to his calling more or less, find someone who is willing to accept that – his massage therapist/acupuncturist Mimi. When the two decide to tie the knot, he insists on doing it in Budapest, Hungary in the synagogue where his grandfather had his bar mitzvah. If the site of Ziggy, tears streaming down his face, listening to the rabbi speak about the full circle of the grandchild coming to the temple where he breathes the air his grandfather breathed doesn’t make you misty-eyed, well, you are made of sterner stuff than I. I found him an engaging man, one who his brother said, not unkindly, that he was an 80-year-old Jew even as a child. He definitely seems to be an old soul and I’d love to sit down with him for an hour and just chat but I’d be willing to bet that it is a rare thing that he has an hour to spare for such pastimes.

Critic Sean Howley advised me not to see this hungry and it is sound advice. At the very least you will be jonesing for some good deli sandwiches after seeing this and the very next day I headed over to TooJays, our local deli. Matzoh Ball soup, pastrami on rye, carrot cake and a Dr. Brown’s celery soda. Oy vey it was delicious!

Gastronomy aside, the movie is surprisingly informative but doesn’t ever condescend. There are a number of Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout but they are thoughtfully defined with on-screen graphics in case you don’t speak it or haven’t been around it. There is a joy in what these deli men do, and even if they sometimes shake their heads in wonder at their own insanity it is clear that they feel what they do is not just a living but a calling. Not everyone feels the call as fervently as Ziggy does but all of them understand that what they are doing is not just piling a sandwich high with corned beef – they’re preserving a lifestyle and a culture that is in danger of disappearing. That makes the case that every time you head out to your local deli to pick up a sandwich, a bowl of soup or a loaf of bread, you are doing more than sating your appetite; you’re helping them preserve something precious. Who knew that grabbing a knish could be so important?

REASONS TO GO: Ziggy makes an ideal face for delicatessens. Informational without being boring and entertaining without being disrespectful. Merges cultural aspects and foodie aspects nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Will make you hungry. Doesn’t really delve into why delis declined other than the financial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of cussing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ziggy was once a line cook under Gordon Ramsay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/14/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Search for General Tso
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Wild Card