Dan Jacobson reviews a New York based comedy-drama exploring the complicated relationships between a family after the comedic death of its patriarch.
I have a complicated relationship with Annie Hall. As a lover of romantic comedies, I appreciate it for its creative, rule-breaking storytelling, and understand how its influences infuse the best romantic comedies that have been made since. As a Jewish person, I also appreciate how Woody Allen distils many of the themes and references of a notoriously Jewish perspective on humour and life. The film has its undeniably funny moments. However, its legendary cinematic status has prompted the belief amongst ‘kino connoisseurs’ that they now possess a unique perspective on, and must explain to me, the sarcastic, neurotic Jewishness embodied by Alvy. Please, if I wanted to learn about being a sarcastic, neurotic Jew, I would talk to myself. Which I do.
It’s clear that Seth Fisher, the writer, director, and star of Blumenthal, also has a complicated relationship with Woody Allen movies. His debut film, which was released in 2013 and featured in this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival, focuses on Howard Blumenthal, a renowned and recently deceased playwright (portrayed by Brian Cox) and his family, who is trying to retrieve his lifetime achievement award.
In summary, Blumenthal is what happens when you take all of the wrong messages from all of Woody Allen’s worst movies. The film solely exists within the high-minded pseudo-intellectualism of the champagne socialist, Upper West Side intelligentsia, where self-esteem issues can be fixed with plastic surgery, and your self-worth is measured by other people’s appreciation of your artistic endeavours. Each character is imbued with perplexing, allegorical quirks: Howard himself allegedly died whilst laughing at his own joke; Howard’s brother, Saul, has not had a bowel movement in the week following Howard’s death; and Saul’s wife, Cheryl, is trying to have an affair after believing she has lost her husband’s affection. In archetypal Woody Allen fashion, every miserable, ageing, uncharismatic man somehow earns the adoration of one beautiful, intelligent, articulate, personable, younger woman after another – whilst simultaneously ignoring the beautiful, intelligent, articulate, personable, younger women who are already in their lives.
But above all, the film’s biggest crime resides in Ethan, (Saul and Cheryl’s son, played by Fisher himself) who is one of the most selfish, ignorant, narcissistic, self-absorbed, and punchable characters in any film I have ever seen. Ethan is a cringingly obvious attempt at imitating the maladjusted leads of Woody Allen classics like Annie Hall and Manhattan. However, Allen’s characters, while revelling in their self-pity, manage to lend themselves a certain sympathy through their curse of self-awareness, which manifests as an unrelenting obsession with social minutiae and the perceptions of others. For Ethan, though, these characteristics are a source of intense glee and pride; proof of how much smarter he is than everyone else, and an excuse for his shockingly poor treatment of everyone he meets. To put it simply, Fisher mistakes self-awareness for being a dreadful, dreadful individual.
Herein lies what may be the one positive to arise from Blumenthal. I, like Alvy and Ethan, revel in social overthinking and the subsequent humorous self-deprecation that comes with it: it feels like a welcome respite from my crippling imposter syndrome. However, could it be possible that my friends, who clearly don’t find me as insufferable as I’ve convinced myself they should, don’t find this as side-splittingly funny as I do? Consequently, do my friends view me in the same way I view this movie? Ever since watching Blumenthal, self-deprecation doesn’t seem to be as funny anymore – and that feels like a good thing.
I will not say that this film has saving graces, as this would be too flattering. Brian Cox is entertaining during his few minutes of screen time, and Fred Melamed’s soothingly intimidating performance as Howard’s agent is always welcome – even if it works far better in Shiva Baby, my personal favourite film of this year’s festival. Overall, though, Blumenthal is a film with its heart far from the right place.
Blumenthal culminates in Ethan dashing through Chinatown to make amends with his girlfriend, whom he effortlessly flung aside at the beginning of the film. The scene is curiously reminiscent of the famous scene from Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. However, whilst the latter was considered one of the best cultural moments of the 2010s by The New Yorker, the former merely caps off the barely existent redemption arc of a spoilt man-child who has not only learnt nothing. Ethan has basically committed himself to never learning anything; once again showing how much inspiration Blumenthal draws from Woody Allen’s films.