June 16, 2021

Online premieres: review of “Shiva Baby”, by Emma Seligman (MUBI)

This farcical comedy takes place at a New York Jewish community wake in which a college girl unexpectedly bumps into an ex-girlfriend and a lover.

Oy vey. Where to start with this movie? Imagine a Jewish community play that takes place in the 1950s or ’60s (pre-Woody Allen or Mel Brooks) and bring it to the present, with some of the cultural changes that took place in these decades and a touch of spirit indie. Let’s put this behind the scenes of a filmmaker who knows that what she is dealing with is a lot of old-fashioned theatrical farce and then decides to tell her story with very tight shots and with suspense movie music, even horror. Something new and something borrowed. Something used and something blue is missing and we have a full event.

The point is that SHIVA BABYAs its title implies, it does not take place at a wedding but at one of those post-burial events, dear to a certain Jewish tradition. In the heart of the community that lives in the suburbs of New York, several families come together to fire someone who nobody remembers very well who he was. But you have to be there and bring some food. That dictates the tradition. Danielle (newcomer Rachel Sennott), Debbie and Joel’s daughter, is out of a family engagement and it is a situation that distresses and stresses her. More than anything because she does not have a permanent job and what she is studying («Gender Studies») is not entirely well seen by her parents since she does not have a clear job opportunity. And his parents do nothing more than say it out loud to everyone who crosses his path. Uncles, cousins, unknown relatives and anyone who listens to them.

There are things that their parents do not know and others that they suspect. And both, wow, are present in the event in question. Maya (Molly Gordon), a childhood friend, shows up there to raise everyone’s nerves. Is that Danielle had an affair with her that is now in a not entirely clear situation. Mama Debbie (a nice Polly Draper) knows this and tells Danielle not to go near her, it’s time to “get over that experimentation stage.” Papa Joel (Fred Melamed, in a character and characterization very old school), meanwhile, he is lost in his own universe of a disoriented father, the kind that makes the most uncomfortable comments to the least indicated people all the time.

But Maya is not Danielle’s main problem. To confirm that all the resources of a farce are present, Max (Danny Deferrari) also arrives there, a friend of the family whom we saw, in the first scene of the film, having sex with Danielle. Is it your partner? Your lover? No, neither of the two things. The guy is kind of sugar daddy giving her gifts and money to help her with her studies as “compensation” for her services. Things get even more complicated because this Max comes to the wake accompanied by his blonde, beautiful – and very goy– wife and her pretty but very crybaby baby.

And that’s what you’ll see here, folks. An old-fashioned comedy with new themes. Tangles, confusion, falls. A cell phone that gets lost, food that falls, coffee that spills. Secrets in one room, kisses in another, gossip in the living room. And a disenchanted Danielle who gets more and more complicated as she tries to get out of her problems by always making the worst possible decisions and more alcohol than her body can tolerate. Let’s agree, it is true, that neither her parents, nor Max, nor Maya help her much to carry the day with dignity. But the chaos they live is typical of a WAITING FOR THE CARRIAGE Judaic with the volume turned up to Eleven. If you’ve ever gone through that (I’ve done it), I recommend you watch it from the outside. Believe me.

It’s a good movie SHIVA BABY? I am not convinced. I think if it weren’t for the current issues he’s working on and some formal Seligman decisions, we’d be talking about a retro comedy like vaudeville that goes back years. But the director is smart and knows that she has to do what she can to get her comedy out of that old corner. Then transform the entire evening into a terrifying Hitchcockian thriller in which the music and camera angles seem more typical of PSYCHOSIS Than from a Neil Simon comedy. And that decision — plus its 21st century themes — serves to give the film a liveliness and tension that it might not otherwise have.

I don’t think it’s enough, anyway. The script uses so many but so many clichés that at times the film seems like a satirical sketch like those of Saturday Night Live. Nice, for a while, but not for almost an hour and a half full of unknown aunts who ask about your love life, parents who embarrass you in front of everyone while praising the daughters of others or lovers who never heard words spoken as discretion or dissimulation. Entertaining and forgettable, friendly and somewhat banal, it serves at least to balance styles within the programming of a platform that has more its sights set on a more complex and challenging type of auteur cinema. SHIVA BABY it is anything but that. It is a movie to watch with dad, mom, partner, little brother and also with the sister-in-law who surely comes home and brings knishes which is the only thing he knows how to do more or less well …