A Price Above Rubies
1998, R, 115 min. Directed by Boaz Yakin. Starring Renée Zellweger, Christopher Eccleston, Allen Payne, Glenn Fitzgerald, Julianna Margulies, Kim Hunter, John Randolph, Kathleen Chalfant.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 3, 1998
Not since Melanie Griffith strode among them in A Stranger Among Us a few years ago has Brooklyn's Hasidic community been so foregrounded in an American motion picture. Strangely, Griffith's untenable “goy in the hood” turn proved more respectful of that community's tightly knit gestalt than this new tale by Boaz Yakin (Fresh) about a Hasidic woman's rebellion against the patriarchal confines of her circumscribed life. Not that there isn't a good story to be told here -- it's just that writer-director Yakin's A Price Above Rubies fails to develop an emotionally believable storyline and dramatic setting. As Sonia, the film's protagonist, Zellweger is forced to make the most of her engagingly pouty facial expressions. Though we are rarely made privy to the turmoil Sonia is experiencing, it's enough that we see Zellweger's puffy pout to therefore assume that her character's been somewhere offscreen crying or otherwise venting her pent-up emotions. Her face is just about the only thing that helps lends credence to this shallow drama. Is Sonia a feminist rebel, a meshuginah head case, a religious transgressor? Yakin never seems quite certain, hinting at all three but never making a case for any particular theory. As the film opens, we view Sonia as a child with her brother Yossi, who tells her a bedtime story about an eternally wandering woman and then offers her a false ruby, which she instantly nails as fake. Yossi runs off for a midnight swim, never to return alive, but always to remain an apparition that flits through her perplexed imagination (something like that dancing baby that keeps beckoning Ally McBeal). Next we see her as a grown woman hysterically reluctant to hand over her newborn son for circumcision at his bris. Sonia has married a promising young scholar named Mendel (Fitzgerald), a kind young man who is a shining light in the eyes of the community and the esteemed Rebbe. But Sonia is always asking Medel impious questions like whether he loves her more than God, and if they can make love with the lights on. Sonia's brother-in-law Sender (Eccleston) notices the impetuous nature of his brother's wife and offers her a job as a jewelry buyer for his shady, all-cash operation. Sender is the closest thing to a villain in this story, schooling Sonia in his self-serving business ethics and luring her with the pleasures of quick, vigorous, up-against-the wall and on-the-table schtuppings. It's hard to discern what pleasure is being derived by the schtupee in these encounters but before long, Sonia is all hot under her Hasidic wig and long sleeves and is off and running on her quest to find her true self. The quest involves a far-fetched fling with a Puerto Rican jewelry maker (Payne), with whom she casts her destiny. What the film is missing is any sense of Sonia's evolution or thinking process. One minute she's a meek, housebroken housefrau; overnight, she's a hard-bitten businesswoman busting some dealer's chops. One minute she's trying to steal a smooch on the lips from her comforting sister-in-law (Margulies); never again does that lesbian lunge come into play. These confusing character shifts are perhaps indicative of the ideas that provided the original impetus for the movie. But the end result is one farblondget mess.