‘Menashe’ is a film that hopes to present itself as a contemporary version of ‘Marty’ (in Yiddish no less). Fair enough. Beautifully observed works of humanism like ‘Marty’ barely exist anymore so any attempt is admirable. However, the film struggles so hard to feel real that it loses the dramatic pull or impact the filmmakers crave.
YouTube comedian Menashe Lustig stars as a Yiddish grocery store clerk for whom life is one prolonged series of hard luck stories. He recently lost his wife as a result of in-vitro fertilization gone wrong. He’s battling for the custody of his son (Ruben Niborski) because, in accordance with Hasidic culture, a mother must be in the home of every child. He’s having a hard time finding a match or even the will to replace his wife. He accidentally leaves a delivery truck door open and loses a fortune in fish for a man he hopes will lend him money. He leaves something in the oven for too long and it catches fire. Everything he does seems to go wrong. He’s not respected; most folks don’t even like him. But he means well. His heart is always in the right place. He’s trying. You know the type. You might even be one.
The character of Menashe is a wonderfully rounded and tragically funny creation, a lovable lug who can’t help but get in his own way. Lustig plays him with a heavy heart and a light touch that’s impossible not to fall for, even when he’s making all of his problems worse. A few scenes suggest that he’s a performer capable of more than just the subtle gestures and inner pain allowed here. Hopefully one day he’ll get to show off that full potential.
Everyone else in the film is strong as well, but few are afforded the screen time to make much impact. This is a one handed character piece for the most part. Beyond that, co-writer/director Joshua Z Weinstein is mostly interested in showing a community that rarely ever presents itself so openly on screen.
The movie has been plugged as the first film shot fully in Yiddish in 70 years and the director has claimed much of it was shot in secret. Filming in a culture that’s rarely interested in broadcasting itself, Weinstein favors handheld cameras and often seems to be shooting hidden in live locations. The former documentarian clearly played some trickery to make this movie happen, and indeed there’s an undeniable charm and fascination inherit in being let into this secret little world. The rituals, culture and locations are presented lovingly from insiders, not as any sort of freak show Reality series. It’s a warm and sweet little peek into a hidden place.
Unfortunately, beyond the intriguing protagonist and cultural voyeurism, there really isn’t much to ‘Menashe’ worth getting excited about. The film is ultimately so subtle it comes across as simple, and the filmmaker’s desire to avoid anything resembling obvious resolution doesn’t help matters. It’s as if Weinstein didn’t quite know what to do with his character and world when he started shooting and never quite figured that out over production. Ultimately, this is a tale of a recklessly unlucky oddball who makes some baby steps to take control of his life. There’s value there, just not much drama. Still, what works in ‘Menashe’ is strong enough to be worthy of a recommendation if the subject matter is of any interest. Just don’t expect any particularly dramatic narrative acts to emerge or anything resembling the potent finale of ‘Marty’.