MOVIE REVIEW: Two Movies To See At The Washington Jewish Film Festival (And On The Fest Circuit)

After delivering you my picks from the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, I'm back with two movies from the DC Jewish Film Festival's fall series that really shouldn't be skipped.
(https://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/humor-me/)
Humor Me, written and directed by Sam Hoffman, is the very model of a modern indie comedy, albeit with a welcome dash of Jewish humor. (Wrong Gilbert and Sullivan reference, but once you see the film you'll appreciate my attempt at humor, I swear.)

Nate, played by Jermaine Clement with the right mix of resignation and sarcasm, is a New York playwright who's been stuck in a creative rut for an excessively long time. His wife Nirit (Maria Dizzia) has just left him for a French billionaire and taken their son with him, and since Nate has also been stuck in a state of arrested development, he has no money to pay rent, so he moves in with his father Bob (played by Elliot Gould) in his retirement community. Nate and Bob have rarely seen eye to eye, so naturally it's not the best fit: to Nate, Bob is merely a repository for half-baked, groan-inducing jokes and rarely takes things seriously, especially after the death of Nate's mother. It's arguable, in fact, that Nate's tendency to write overwrought stage dramas is a reaction to Bob's attempts at keeping the mood light, no matter the cost, even when Nate's work turns autobiographical and cruel toward Bob. (The film itself opens with a black-and-white vignette about "Zimmerman," Bob's favorite joke protagonist, requiring an expensive penis reconstruction, setting the off-beat tone for the rest of the project.)

At first Nate tries biding his time at the retirement community through doing menial jobs, supervised by the irascible Ellis (Willie C. Carpenter), until he stumbles his way into directing a production of The Mikado, staged by the senior residents. From there, Humor Me takes a well-worn (if still effective) path towards Nate's self-actualization and reconciliation with Bob, as well as a sweetly off-key romance with Allison (Ingrid Michaelson), the newly-sober daughter of a resident. The expected anguish of Nate's pending divorce from his wife simply fails to materialize, with Nate and Nirit maintaining a relatively good sense of humor about the whole thing through periodic video chats. While it's arguably not a ground-breaking type of material--adult man-child gets his groove back--the performances and the unexpected setting of a retirement community (and the enjoyment zany elderly folks bring to the story) make Humor Me a cut above a typical comedy picture.

Humor Me is Hoffman's first feature as a director, although he has extensive producing credits on projects like Madam Secretary and Moonrise Kingdom, and it's surely to his credit (another incorrect Gilbert and Sullivan reference, of course) that he's secured an incredibly strong cast for his debut. Elliot Gould is earnest and affecting as Bob, whose ham-handed attempts at humor are revealed to be a mask for his own loneliness and love for Nate. Ingrid Michaelson, best known as a musician, is dry and endearing, while Le Clanché du Rand amuses as a former actress and participant in the Mikado who is a little too interested in Nate. Ultimately, the lightness and sincerity brought to Humor Me makes it worth catching.
(https://psmag.com/social-justice/a-silver-screen-bombshells-ingenious-invention)
Bombshell has been making the rounds on the Jewish (and otherwise) film festival circuit this year, and it's honestly no wonder that it's so popular. This documentary of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr is engaging and poignant, expanding the view (and our understanding) of the famously beautiful Hollywood star glimpsed in films such as Samson and Delilah and Algiers through interviews with members of Lamarr's family, contemporaries, film scholars and actors with archival footage and photographs. For years now, Lamarr has been quietly celebrated for her contributions to science and technology, such as the design for a frequency-hopping signal that prevented torpedoes from being sabotaged by enemy radio. Aside from fans in the scientific and academic communities, though, her work off-screen has not gained the recognition it deserves.

Bombshell takes a conventionally chronological approach, tracing Lamarr's Austrian childhood (she was born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) to her early film career in Czech projects such as Ecstasy, which caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who promptly spirited her away to Hollywood to be the next big star. While a schoolgirl, she was bright and curious, and, according to one interviewee, would likely have gone to MIT had she not been born a girl in the early twentieth century. In fact, the film stresses that it was her radiant good looks that in part derailed her attempts to be taken seriously as a scientist; after filming the first-ever (non-pornographic) scene of a woman having an orgasm in Ecstasy, Lamarr became a sex symbol and object of desire, a fate which was largely sealed for the rest of her life.

Yet Bombshell makes clear that Lamarr found ways to subvert societal expectations and pursue her own (unfortunately unsuccessful) creative projects outside of the studio system despite her growing unhappiness and despair with her life and career. At one point, Lamarr commented that she felt like she was acting more in her own life than on the screen; the contrast between her natural, Austrian-inflected English from late-in-life interviews and the airy, Hepburn-esque tones she was taught to use in Hollywood pictures is striking evidence of the artifice of her world.

What could have been emphasized more in Bombshell is Lamarr's relationship to her Jewish identity upon arriving in the United States and her own attitude to assimilating, as the film variously describes her as both enthusiastically American and terribly homesick for Austria. After leaving Austria and her own assimilated family in the late thirties, how might Lamarr have felt upon arriving in the American entertainment industry, where many Jews achieved positions of power and influence? Sadly, Bombshell chooses to focus less on these more complex intra-Jewish issues in favor of describing the interplay of what we might call the three Hedys--the spellbinding actress, the brainy, underestimated inventor, and the lonely, misunderstood Hedwig caught between the two.

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