WHEN DO WE EAT?R
Michael Lerner is great. Meryl Streep-great? Perhaps not. But in When Do We Eat? this deservedly Oscar-nominated character actor (for 1991's Barton Fink, in which he played one in a long line of studio heads, producers, attorneys and other high-roller authorities) makes a square, stuffy, well-to-do businessman, with adultery in his background and barely suppressed anger, into the hero of the piece. Now that is a feat.
It helps that-hell, it's the formula that-he's surrounded by an eccentric array of family and guests at the Passover Seder around which this low-budget comedy-drama revolves. Ira Stuckman-he's a stuck man; get it?-is a manufacturer of Christmas ornaments, an over-obviously ironic profession for a Jew, however reform he may be. Ira has two grown daughters from his first wife, and two teens with his second, Peggy (Lesley Ann Warren), who has a grown son of her own. There's the obligatory gay child-Ira's grown daughter Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn)-and minority dinner guest-her partner, the black/Hispanic Grace (Cynda Williams). Ira's Holocaust-survivor father (Jack Klugman) keeps a suitcase with clothing, food and other essentials packed and perpetually nearby, in case history repeats itself. And there's a beautiful cousin the same age as the grown kids, plus an Israeli ex-serviceman with a Moshe Dayan eye patch and an upscale event-tent business. If the Brady Bunch were Jewish, jaded and older, and Mike Brady dyspeptic and impatient, this is would be their dinner.
For reasons left vague, model-thin matriarch Peggy wants this Seder to be her best. It's unclear why she believes this would salve the fractured family, or make her distracted husband-who left his first wife for her, and who in family pictures and flashbacks is an almost achingly hopeful young '70s guy-fall romantically back in love with her. In any case, the leg of lamb on a rotating spit and the lavish backyard Arabian Nights tent suggest she'd have been a promising, if jittery, party-planner.
Married, first-time filmmakers Salvador Litvak and Nina Davidovich infuse an admirably real, undirected anger in Peggy, as well as in Ira and much of the rest of the family, who have enough secrets to break several of the Ten Commandments. Things take a sitcom turn-which in this context is a compliment referring to a needed light touch and good craftsmanship-when teenage son Zeke (Ben Feldman) slips his father a tab of Ecstasy, or at least what Zeke believes to be that, but from the looks of things through Ira's eyes, seems a lot more like LSD. Despite their concern for Ira, to whom Zeke has fessed up, the family proceeds at his insistence to continue plowing through the Haggadah.
Things wrap up a little too neatly, yet there's something very sweet and real beneath all the bluster, braggadocio, disgust and denial, pushing through as improbably and miraculously as Moses through the Red Sea. The filmmakers keep all the comings and goings well-juggled-except for casting the too alike-looking Shiri Appleby as sexologist daughter Nikki and Mili Avital as type-A publicist cousin Vanessa, tipping the fine cast into one or two people too many. Regardless, Litvak elicits full, bloody-fanged performances from actors who spend a lot of time sitting around a table. Interestingly, it's the actors playing the two guests-Williams as Grace and Mark Ivanir as macho Israeli Rafi-who come across less as real people than as stage devices. Maybe that shows just how well the other actors-in particular the incredible Lerner-become a family onscreen.