Written by Joshua Z. Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, and Musa Syeed
Directed by Joshua Z. Weinstein
Starring Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus and more
Grade: Two and a half stars
Life is generally quieter and more meandering than fiction.
That fact is a two-edged sword for both filmmakers and audiences dealing in slice-of-life fiction. Hewing to a more realistic plotline and pacing can make your movie feel like a breath of fresh air to audience members who may be sick of narrative clichés. At the same time, there’s the inescapable truth that those are the very same elements that generally make real life far less interesting than fiction.
That’s the dichotomy at the heart of “Menashe,” the first narrative fiction film from documentary director Joshua Z. Weinstein. The story of a widower in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community, “Menashe” both offers an immersive look at a culture many of us aren’t familiar with and a familiar study of a man who’s lost in the world. The glimpse into the culture remains fascinating throughout, but Menashe’s story could have benefitted from some tightening and a solid character arc.
“Menashe” follows the titular character, a Orthodox Jewish widower who works in a convenience store and whose son living with his maternal uncle due to religious laws about children in unmarried homes. It’s clear early on that Menashe is seen as something of a screw-up, always short of cash, not wearing his hat and coat, and paying no attention to the matches the rabbi sends his way. His most redeeming moments are when he spends time with his son, bringing a light to both of them that makes you believe in the connection.
Weinstein is still clearly more comfortable in the world of documentary filmmaking, and it shows in every scene that focuses on Judaism as a religion and culture. We’re immersed into the meetings as if we belong there, the characters all speaking in Yiddish (there are subtitles) and free of the self-conscious performance that comes from demonstrating things for outsiders. I would have loved more of this.
Menashe, however, was more difficult to love. Likeability is hardly a requirement in a protagonist, but the rules of storytelling demand that the lead character either evolve or devolve in someway throughout the film. We’re here to see change, for better or worse.
In “Menashe,” however, there’s as little emotional change as there is cultural change. The movie establishes early on that Menashe has a tendency to talk big and then never follow through, but instead of interrogating or challenging that the movie largely leaves him to stumble through the same patterns again and again without much question until the last 15 or 20 minutes. Even then, we don’t fully get the sense that Menashe realizes that the pattern he’s been living is no longer acceptable, which is frustrating for the audience.
There are moments of light, quiet, intimate scenes that Menashe shares with his son that are showcase all that slice-of-life fiction can be at its best. But it’s not enough, and by the end of the movie you’re as tired of Menashe as you would be any neighbor or family member who keeps making the same mistakes over and over again and never seeming to realize where he went wrong.