A soup of many flavors
When a film describes itself as being about “sex, drugs and matzo ball soup” in its main advertising tagline, you know immediately that this is not intended to appeal to a wide audience. An important question that I thought about before seeing “When Do We Eat?” (rated R) was to wonder if one must be Jewish to understand and appreciate this definitely quirky film. And a typically Jewish response is, “Yes and no.”
The plot revolves around the highly dysfunctional Stuckman family, headed by father Ira (Michael Lerner). His wife, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren), is frantically trying to get everything ready for their Passover Seder (dinner) and doesn’t have any matzo. Phone calls to all the kids asking for their help reveal how disconnected they are.
Zeke (Ben Feldman) is a teen who spends histime using recreational drugs. Ethan (Max Greenfield) is a Stanford University dropout and former investor who decided to become very religious. Nikki (Shiri Appleby) is a sex therapist who, in her own words, “has sex with cripples.”
Lionel (Adam Lamberg) has autism and is distanced from the family’s problems. Ira’s daughter from his first marriage, Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), is a lesbian who feels cheated out of her formative years and resents her father for leaving her mother.
When Jennifer arrives with her partner, Grace (Cynda Williams), and sarcastically remarks to her stepmother, “Last time we got together it was such a treat,” things begin heating up faster than Peg’s carefully planned kosher meal. Zeke dreads another session of repressed arguments and bickering, so he slips some of his stash of the drug ecstasy into Ira’s antacid. The rest of the story revolves around how the family survives yet another year of unresolved anger, resentment and jealousy.
The pacing is very quick, with lots of good dialogue from writer/director/producer Salvador Litvak, and requires the viewer’s attention. Although there are some amusing visual effects that illustrate Ira’s ecstasy-induced hallucinations, this is a movie driven primarily by its scrip, and it strikes an interesting balance between comedy and drama. The comedy comes more from the situations rather than the spoken words, but I felt that the dramatic parts were actually more effective.
Ira’s elderly father, Artur (a comically understated Jack Klugman), still mourns his long-deceased wife and has trouble bonding with his only surviving son, whose successful business making Christmas ornaments emotionally pains his dad, a survivor of the Holocaust. There are a lot of misunderstandings and hurt feelings being passed around the table, so getting inside the characters’ motivations helps make many of them more sympathetic.
Although there are specific references to the Jewish religion, culture and customs that will not be understood by everyone, there are messages that can be appreciated by all. Passover is a holiday celebrating freedom, redemption and liberation, and those themes are universal. How this family finds them is fun to watch.
If you enjoy films out of the mainstream, this meal will fill you up nicely.