Menashe intends to be a kind of Yiddish Marty, the sweet but emotionally charged story of a schlubby lout trying to make an honest way through a cruel word, and gets only part of the way there. The story it tells is certainly touching and infused with a similar surge of real emotion, based as it is on the life of the film’s star, the talented YouTube comedian Menashe Lustig. But the film ends up getting stuck in a no man’s land between fiction and documentary, never quite coming together as a complete narrative.
Menashe is a Pooh Bear of a Borough Park grocery store clerk, one who sometimes smells like fish and is often late to work. He lost his wife as a result of in vitro fertilization when trying to have a second child, and stumbles half-heartedly through various matchmaker attempts to find him a new wife. (“Besides marriage and kids, what else is there?” says one unimpressed potential mate.) According to Hasidic culture, a mother must be present in every home, so his son Rieven is sent to live with the family of his widow’s brother (Yoel Weisshaus). The uncle is a real estate investor who has little patience for his brother-in-law, a man his community considers more of a schlemiel than a mensch. When he picks up his son after school by luring him into his delivery van with a baby chick that will be raised for the Yom Kippur atonement ritual of Kapparot (the paractice in which a chicken is swung around a person’s head), Menashe can even seem a little creepy.
The film claims to be one of the only movies shot in Yiddish in 70 years, but considering the language’s effective use in the Coen Brothers’ A Simple Man and other movies, that doesn’t feel like enough of a hook to recommend it. What it does provide is an authentic view of Brooklyn’s Hasidic community and the rituals—from the morning hand washing to the donning of the prayer shawl—that are typically out of view of their secular neighbors. Exposing secret societies has in recent years been the trade of fringe reality TV shows like Amish Mafia and Rattled. This experience is more tender hearted than those shows, and not so clearly exploitive. But still, like Menashe’s vest, something here smells a little fishy: The production notes say that the film was shot “secretly” in Brooklyn (calling to mind Steve Martin’s incognito director secretly filming an action movie in Bowfinger) but the film never completely solves the riddle of how to make a movie of people who so clearly don’t want you there; director Joshua Z Weinstein, a documentarian making his first non-fiction film, seems to keep his camera twenty to thirty feet from the action, as if he was filming out the window of a getaway van.
Lustig is an excellent actor, combining charisma with enviable naturalism. For someone who had never been to a movie theater before attending his own film’s premiere at Sundance, Lustig could not be more at ease on the big screen. His every action comes from deep inside; he has this way of running his hand over his face in moments of exhaustion, like a coach whose team is down big in the fourth quarter. In the scenes where he drinks, dances, or gets fed up, you can see that Lustig has the talent to be an outsized performer, one who strives to breakout of the film’s quiet deference and solemnity, which is at times stifling. Here is someone who should be able to release his inner Belushi but keeps being told to use his indoor voice. Young Ruben Niborski, a first time Israeli actor whose parents are renowned Yiddish scholars, is wonderful as a complicated young man torn between his playful and slightly unreliable dad and the stability of life with his uncle.
Menashe and Rieven’s relationship develops honestly as the father prepares to host his deceased wife’s memorial in his tiny apartment, getting a kugel recipe from a neighbor and buying a rabbi’s portrait for the living room. The performances by the actors playing these characters—and all the other non-professional actors that form what feels like a very real community—are uniformly excellent, but their commitment is not matched by the filmmaking approach, which can feel furtive and lacking a point-of-view. And the writers don’t seem to know where to take the lovely set-up gifted to them by Lustig’s tragic life story. Essentially, Menashe’s journey is one of a stubborn-minded oddball who becomes a slightly more compliant one. Considering the talent involved, and the rare opportunity presented to visit intimately with people many of us know best as fellow strap hangers on the subway, both we and them deserve a little bit better.