2017, PG, 82 min. Directed by Joshua Z Weinstein. Starring Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 1, 2017
“When are you going to be a mensch, already?” That’s the question repeatedly posed to the titular schlemiel, a Hasid widower in New York City’s Borough Park who’s being pressured to remarry lest his young son Rieven (fantastic child actor Niborski) be removed from his single-parent household according to Talmudic law. And that’s the sum total of the drama here, but Menashe the film is so intimate and so nuanced in its depiction of the woes of Menashe the character that there’s really no need for anything else.
Not even passing knowledge of Hasidic Judaism is required to sympathize with Menashe’s predicament. Director Weinstein wisely schools the audience in the ways of the ultra-orthodox by allowing the story to accrue multiple little moments of wisdom and faith without cloying expository dialogue. You’re simply thrust into this niche community and go with the exceedingly strict flow. (In certain aspects, the Hasidim are the Jewish equivalent of the Amish or the Shakers, right down to the ritualistic, back-and-forth davening.)
Lustig is marvelous as Menashe. Portly, balding, but with an occasional twinkle in his eye, the character comes off as an older, Jewish Charlie Brown, hapless but trying so very hard to pull off the metaphorical football punt that will return his beloved son to him. Not so fast, says the rabbi and Menashe’s virulently uptight and condescending brother-in-law and nudnik Yoel (Weisshaus), the latter of whom is currently taking sweet little Rieven into his own family, even though it’s clear that such generosity of spirit is, in Yoel’s eyes, an insufferable chore. Continually hounded by his boss at the local kosher grocer for doing what’s actually the totally mensch thing to do – at one telling point he attempts to not sell an unwashed head of lettuce to a shopper – Menashe is driven by simultaneous self-doubt and an inner spiritual drive to at least try to conform to the straitjacketed and innumerable laws of the Talmud and the Torah. But like Lucy with the infamous pigskin gag, fate just keeps on snatching Menashe’s moment of triumph out of his path before he can even get around to it. The end result? Compassion for the (literally) poor schmuck conjoined with a genuine sympathy toward his right-minded bunglings, noodle kugel and all.