Never underestimate the value of “novelty” when it comes to romantic comedies. A “fish out of water” romance, where somebody from one culture falls for someone from an alien (to him or her) culture, that’s the sort of fresh take that gets our attention and holds our interest, if the leads are charismatic enough.
“The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch” almost certainly had more novelty in its native Switzerland than it does in North America. It’s not as if we have seen a lot of romantic treatments of the idea of an Orthodox Jew taking a tumble for a pretty Gentile. Still, it’s happened. And when “Seinfeld” pounded the notion of Jewish fascination for “the other” as “shiksa appeal” some 25 years ago, and others followed suit, the bloom went off that rose on this side of the Atlantic.
“Awakening” is a comedy that traffics in stereoptypes and caricatures, that has its hero, college student and assistant in his father’s insurance business Motti Wolkenbruch (Joel Basman) turn to the camera, here and there, and translate Yiddish or explain Hebrew terms and comical customs of “my people” to us.
Why do Orthodox Jews (in Switzerland, at least) all drive Toyota Previa mini-vans?
It’s the “eytse,” Motti explains. You go to an optician for eyeglass advice, you listen to the car salesman’s pitch in the same way. And you buy a car for all the children you’ll be having, practical and ugly. TRUST me!
The turn to the camera and drolly narrate and “explain” yourself and your people to us shtick is worn. But in this case, “Awakening” could use a lot more of that. Yiddish and Yiddish translations (which I put in the headline to this review) never get old.
When your story’s about “shiksa appeal,” the hidebound traditions of your community, and how every Jewish boy’s closest relationship is with his badgering, micro-managing and domineering mother, you need every laugh you can get. There aren’t many left in those cultural tropes.
Motti’s “Mame,” Judith (Inge Maux) is putting her son through a trial by shidduch. She and her kvetching coffee klatch are hell-bent on arranging Motti’s mate-for-life. He is dragged to one “set up” meeting with an eligible Jewish woman after another.
Complaining doesn’t help. “I want to marry a woman I really like,” he says (in German, with English subtitles).
“You can’t afford to be choosy,” his Mame counsels. Sizing up the meek, redheaded Motti, maybe we see her point. Still, he’s starting his rebellion. He’s shaved his beard. He’s bought new glasses, and not from the Orthodox community’s go-to optometrist.
“Woody Allen glasses,” Mame gripes during the big family Sunday dinners.
Two things conspire to buy him a little time. One of his shidduch set-ups agrees that they should “fake it” just to get their parents off their backs. And that’s at about the time Motti spies his shiksa ideal one day in class.
He’s not positive the striking blonde Emma Watson look-alike Laura (Noémie Schmidt) isn’t Jewish. But she’s outgoing enough to make the first overture, and he quickly finds out that she doesn’t know basic Hebrew or Yiddish phrases that most of planet has picked up — “L’Chaim,” “mazel tov,” etc.
She wants to know what “those little spaghetti strings” are that hang over his pants — “tzitzit.”
She wonders why he won’t shake her hand, even though he’s dying to do much more than that. Not permitted. But a bike ride where she figures out he’s staring at her bottom the whole time tips her off.
“This?” Motti turns to the camera in the worst Jackie Mason tradition and leers, “THIS is a toches.” Or “tuchus.”
Things are just getting interesting when Motti fantasizes what it’ll be like if he takes Laura home to Mame. Violence, perhaps comical, perhaps genuine, he decides.
“You’re KILLING the Jewish race!” or words to that effect, will be shouted between tears. Perhaps while holding a knife.
Fessing up to not actually planning to marry his fake-fiance shidduch set-up doesn’t make matters better. A shrieking tantrum about how her son is gay (“faygale”) ensues.
Let’s see the rabbi, for the rabbi is wise, if not all that funny. “Send him to Eretz Israel,” is his solution. Find one of those aggressive, sexy no-nonsense Israeli Jewish women.
So he does, in a Tel Aviv Orthodox yoga (“Ommmmmm shalooooooom”) studio. Jael (Meytal Gal) is exactly as advertised, Gal Gadot with curls and no interest in wasting time with a lot of foreplay. Motti’s tidy whiteys under his tzitzits? Sexy.
Motti’s dilemma holds our interest, even if the screenwriter can’t figure out a way to make it more of a dilemma. Having him visit a dying client of his father’s insurance business might be designed to tug at his ethnic loyalty and the stakes of this big life decision, or even hint at a life circumscribed by tradition and arranged relationship. But those scenes don’t deliver that.
His asides to the camera fade, and he doesn’t really confide in his dad (Udo Samel) or his best friend Yosi (Aaron Arens). There’s little narrative drive here, and even less comic momentum. The cast makes this watchable, but nothing more.
“Awakening” is just that, a long, yawning start to the first day of the rest of Motti’s life. There’s a sense of fence-sitting in the film’s point of view, embracing free will, while waffling on “tradition” and arranged marriages within an insular culture.
It’s not unpleasant, just grating and in many instances, too familiar to be much fun. Kind of “meh,” overall.
That’s not going to satisfy anybody, either the characters in the movie or among those watching it.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity
Credits: Directed by Michael Steiner, script by Thomas Meyer. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:34