If Tolstoy was right about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way, the cinema of domestic dysfunction will likely never die. But it has gotten awfully droopy, mired in familiar plotting, quasi-wise psychobabble, or — in the case of so many comedies — a knowing prankishness (I'm looking at you, Judd Apatow) that wearies the soul.
I'm fairly sure that with his excitable first feature, Let My People Go, the French director Mikael Buch means to turn the well-worn tropes of Jewish family comedy inside out. That he ends up reaffirming them, along with a gay stereotype or two, is due less to a lack of raw talent than to the sense that, like many novice filmmakers mining their own predicaments for material, he seems caught up in the illusion of having a unique neurosis. The result is late Woody Allen, when early might have done the trick.
A lack of perspective certainly confounds the movie's nervous hero, Reuben (Nicolas Maury). Having fled Paris and the confines of his cartoon Jewish family (we are spared "Hava Nagila" on the soundtrack, but only by a hair), Reuben believes he has found nirvana in Finland, depicted — in delightful homage to Jacques Demy — as a candy-colored paradise of peace, plenty and liberal open minds. There, Reuben lives in apparent harmony with his hunky Nordic boyfriend, Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), and works as the kind of mailman for whom housewives bake cookies.
As for plot, when a misdirected package containing big bucks comes his way, Reuben gets the heave-ho from the holier-than-thou Teemu and reluctantly returns, on the eve of Passover, to the bosom of a family that's so by-the-book crazy you barely have energy left to register that his smother-mother is played by Pedro Almodovar muse Carmen Maura.
There's also a philandering father, a crisis-ridden sister preparing to divorce her goyishe husband, and an ostentatiously hetero brother who helps out in the family dry-cleaning business. To add to the undifferentiated hysteria, several pillars of the Jewish community up the ante by conducting clandestine same-sex affairs.
And then there's Reuben. On the plus side, Buch and his co-writer, Christophe Honore, never make a political issue of his gay identity. It's taken as read, along with the movie's candidly uninhibited sex scenes. All of which might signal a new day for gay cinema if Reuben himself, played right off a cliff by the stage-trained Maury, were less of a cardboard gay hysteric greeting every small twist of adversity as if it were the end of days. Meant to charm, he only irritates.
In what often feels like a parody of French farce, Let My People Go rushes from one shticky situation, one tired sight gag, one ethnic and sexual caricature to the next, before deflating into a family-unity denouement you don't have to be Jewish to see coming down the pike.
I can't quarrel with Buch's warm heart or his insight that those who fail to come to terms with their pasts are condemned to eternal childhood. But that message is no fresher or less inevitable than Reuben's 11th-hour access to maturity — though not before he whines, "My life is one bad Jewish joke after another." Alas, how true.