Film Review: The Wedding PlanUnfunny, cloying and implausible romantic comedy about a woman in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, her desperate need to get married and her unquestioned faith that God will deliver.
“Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…” Well, you know the rest. It’s a charming tune in Fiddler on the Roof, the iconic musical set in a 19th-century shtetl. But even here a little bit goes a long way and Tevye’s daughters have the good taste to gently satirize the tradition. Now, move the marriage plot to 21st-century Israel (admittedly, in an ultra-Orthodox community) and multiply the young girl’s yearning exponentially with no spirit of sendup.
Indeed, in Rama Burshtein’s The Wedding Plan, our 32-year-old protagonist Michal (Noa Koler) has been running amok to matchmakers for more than a decade and endured hundreds of dreary dates. Yet with each defeat she grows increasingly determined to achieve matrimony. In 2017, the premise is hard to take and spirals downward from there.
Desperate for her MRS degree, Michal is also deeply religious and has no doubt that God will deliver, but she must play her part too by really, really wanting it hard enough. God and Michal together will make it happen. This is Hasidism gone New Age meets Disney. Remember “When you wish upon a star…” (Useless to argue you’ll crane your neck). Oh, and did I mention it’s a romantic comedy?
Writer-director Rama Burshtein misfires here, and that’s a disappointment following her brilliant debut film, Fill the Void, a fascinating exploration of a pending marriage—also set in Israel’s Haredi world—which raised difficult moral questions and featured two complex protagonists. An eye-opening and entertaining movie from beginning to end, it lent itself to interpretation and discussion.
The Wedding Plan opens with Michal consulting a holistic Jewish shaman of some sort whose specialty is removing the evil eye from her “patients.” Her tools of exorcism are animal guts and shared will power. Michal insists there’s nothing she wants more than mutual love with the man of her dreams (whoever that may be) that leads to marriage, stability and social status.
In this universe, an unmarried woman who has seen the better side of 30 is viewed with pity and/or contempt. These values have not evolved at all and neither has the practice of arranged dating—often through a matchmaker—where the couple meets a few times in public settings and if they’re compatible enough they set a wedding date.
What’s most striking is that Michal grew up in a secular world, became ultra-Orthodox and chose this lifestyle, though we never find out why. It’s a missed opportunity and one that Burshtein, an American-Israeli who also turned to Orthodoxy later in life, should have fleshed out, given the alien—and, for many, off-putting—subculture that’s depicted here.
Either way, time passes, Michal is finally engaged to one Gidi (Erez Drigues) and has booked a catering hall for the eighth night of Chanukah, a date awash in religious symbolism. The eighth candle in the menorah represents a beacon of peace and happiness and from a Cabalistic perspective—that Burshtein says resonates far more significantly for her—the eighth day evokes the world beyond and concepts of faith and belief.
On a more pedestrian plane, three weeks before the wedding Gidi admits he just doesn’t love Michal and wants out. She’s devastated but refuses to relinquish the hall. She’s fitted for an elaborate wedding dress and purchases an apartment for the groom-free couple, convinced that God will provide her a husband in time.
She may be a borderline personality, although she’s conceived as a plucky girl who makes her living running a mobile petting zoo, toting mice and snakes to all-girl yeshivas. No, it’s not a typical career for a nice Orthodox spinster, but it doesn’t make her any more liberated or less despairing (her pluck notwithstanding).
This is a galaxy of self-diminishing women. Even Michal’s non-religious sister (Dafi Alpern) is painted as needy and dependent, clinging to a husband who no longer desires her. Michal’s secular mother (Irit Sheleg) and girlfriends, who are mortified by Michal’s behavior on some level, support her absurd charade as she retains the services of two more matchmakers through whom she’s introduced to an endless stream of Hasidic men to no purpose.
One refuses to make eye contact with her; another is deaf and arrives with a friend who serves as a signing interpreter; a third is a recently converted Hasid who happens to be Japanese. The politically incorrect sight gags are in fact quite amusing and the film’s highpoint.
Despite herself, Michal experiences a moment of anguished doubt and travels to the Ukrainian grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of the Breslov sect of Hasidism), begging God for a sign of His existence. On the other side of the gravesite wall, a seductive male voice responds, offering comfort and hope.
Later, outside the cemetery, she discovers that the voice of solace belongs to an Israeli pop star, Yos (Oz Zehavi). A flirtation between the two evolves and shortly thereafter he proposes. The probability of such a proposal is nonexistent, but it’s a moot point anyway, since she turns him down. Still, thanks to her pilgrimage to the tomb wall, Michal now has renewed hope. The film was originally entitled Through The Wall, hinting at larger rites of passage, says Burshtein, who changed it because she suspected some American audiences might think they were going to a political drama.
Back in Israel, the eighth night of Chanukah arrives and everyone has gathered at the catering hall for the wedding ceremony that still does not include a husband-to-be. The bridal-clad Michal, covered from head to toe in a layered, lacy white gown with a long train sweeping the floor, enters the hall. The whole scene is grotesque, though it’s pretty obvious where this thing is going. The only question is which of her suitors (or non-suitors) will rescue her?
The structure of the film is episodic—scenes are punctuated by blackouts—which adds nothing. And Michal’s frequent visits to a chronically (or terminally) ill friend whose presence is never explained are puzzling. Koler, a charismatic actress whom I would like to see again, cannot salvage the material.
It’s been said that a second novel, play or film often falls flat in the wake of a debut success, but often the third work finds the artist back on track. Here’s to Burshtein’s next movie.
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