With Le Grand Rôle, director/co-writer Steve Suissa delivers a well-meaning cinematic trifle that seriously strains credibility. Were many of the critical elements more convincing, this contemporary drama would stand more of a chance of engaging audiences. But the film favors melodramatic and quirky twists, never bothering to lay down substantive ballast.

At the center of the story is a quintet of young Jewish men bonded by friendship, their religion, and shared ambitions to make it as actors beyond the hopeless confines of dubbing and third-rate gigs. Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) is early established as pivotal in this gang of five. He lives in a walk-up in working-class Paris with his beloved wife Perla (Bérénice Bejo), who works in Silberman's (Rufus) fabric shop.

Soon the actors learn that Rudolph Grichenberg (Peter Coyote), an American who is, as one character describes him, the world's greatest director, has come to Paris to make a film of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (in Yiddish no less) and is scouting for a Shylock. Maurice brushes up on his Yiddish and, competing with his buddies and a gaggle of Yiddish-fluent Jewish elders, actually lands the role. He bathes in that glory with his buddies and wife, until Grichenberg learns that his first choice has unexpectedly become available and Maurice is sidelined. Almost at the same time, Maurice also learns that Perla has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. While much screen time has been spent setting up how much in love the couple are, the cancer twist comes out of left field.

What brightens Perla is her belief that her husband has landed the coveted Shylock role. Of course, Maurice does not disclose the brutal truth that the role slipped away in a heartbeat. He sustains the lie to the extent that he engages his buddies to participate in an elaborate charade that has Maurice starring in the film, rising early to be on set, doing publicity interviews, and landing on magazine covers. Perla's old boss Silberman even sews a Shylock costume for Maurice that she can admire.

Pushing the ruse to extremes, the gang invades the film's location, does some guerrilla camerawork to bolster Maurice's "starring" role, and even kidnaps Grichenberg. Holding him captive in a limo, the men persuade him to participate in the scam. They take Grichenberg to the dying Perla so she can get a first-hand account of her husband's great talent.

Freiss manages the role of Maurice with finesse and Maurice's gang of actors is likeable enough, though often lazy clichés (the uptight religious guy, the womanizing guy, etc.). A slice of Paris' Jewish community is also lovingly evoked. But much of Le Grand Rôle is farfetched, not the least being a world-class American director lensing Shakespeare in Yiddish or Perla falling for the charade for so long even in this age of media saturation.
Waiting in the wings might be a nice "role" for this film on DVD, where it can reach its obvious demographic.
-Doris Toumarkine