Tzivi reviews 'The Wedding Plan'
Rama Burshtein’s sophomore film The Wedding Plan opens with one of the best scenes I have seen on screen all year -- and then goes relentlessly downhill.
We are introduced to Michal, an Orthodox woman in her early 30s, in a waiting room filled with women (and only women). Her eyes are fixed on a door. When will the door open? When will she receive permission to enter? Michal is so anxious that when a handsome man cuts in front of her, she looks ready to bite his head off. But once the door is open, Hulda -- a Rabbanit whose inner sanctum is filled with photos of famous Hassidic Rabbis -- ushers Michal in and urges her to relax.
Pointing to a vat of dough, Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon) instructs Michal (Noa Koler) to knead it, which Michal does, reluctantly at first, and then with increasing ferocity. Hulda -- with an “I thought I had seen it all” look on her face -- laughs, then sits Michal down at a table, takes her hands, and asks: “What do you want?”
Michal gives the usual answers, but Hulda rejects them. Exasperated, Hulda says she cannot help unless Michal is honest, but how can Michal be honest with Hulda if she cannot be honest with herself? She wants a husband. She wants love. She wants respect. She wants to please God. She wants a life different than the one she has. Simply put, she wants it all. Relax, says Hulda. You will have it, and my son Shimi -- that handsome guy who jumped the queue -- he just happens to own a wedding hall and he will give you a good discount.
Cut to the next scene at the wedding hall where Shimi (Amos Tamam) is serving samples to Michal and her fiancé Gidi (Erez Drigues), a fine young Haredi man with the requisite black coat and payot dangling in front of each ear. There is no explanation of how Michal and Gidi met, nor how long they have been together. All Burshtein -- who both directed The Wedding Plan and wrote the screenplay -- tells us is that Michal is about to get married and everything is perfect. Right? Of course not. This is merely the middle of Act One.
At this point most of my colleagues will tell you that Michal is jilted by her fiancé, but that is not true. What actually happens is that Michal nags Gidi so peevishly that the badgered beau finally flees. Setting herself up as the victim, Michal now challenges God to do better. She keeps the reservation at the wedding hall because she has faith that God will provide a groom by the last night of Chanukah (a mere month away).
Gidi is clearly lacking something, but what can it be besides the fact that Burshtein needs a plot hook? The answer is as obvious as the fact that Chanukah has eight nights. Michal may have told Hulda that she wanted all those conventional things that all good girls say they want, but like all rom-com heroines, what Michal really craves is chemistry.
For the next hour, Michal endures a series of awful dates (presumably all arranged by legitimate matchmakers), punctuated by a poignant meet-up with a pop star named Yos (played by real Israeli pop star Oz Zehavi). Along the way, Michal does meet Mr. Right, but Mr. Right is not immediately available for all the usual rom-com reasons, until, at the last minute, all the pseudo-obstacles suddenly vanish. Hooray for Michal.
As someone who attends Shabbat Services almost every Saturday and has her own complicated relationship with faith, the laws of the Torah, and the God of her ancestors, I feel entitled to tell you I found absolutely nothing “religious” in The Wedding Plan. While the syncretic aspects of contemporary Judaism certainly have anthropological interest -- the Rabbanit who dispenses folk wisdom while slapping Michal’s face with fish blood, the trip to Ukraine to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman -- it is all just window dressing.
I seem to be the only film critic who has these intensely negative reactions to Burshtein’s work, so take this review -- or maybe I should call it a rant -- with a grain of salt. In my review of her first film Fill the Void, I urged Burshtein to “focus on directing and get herself a better screenwriter.” But it is precisely because I had seen Fill the Void (twice) that I knew who Mr. Right was in The Wedding Plan long before many of the potential candidates had even made their first appearance.
And so, I dutifully saw The Wedding Plan a second time too, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything “important” the first time. And so, once again, I feel entitled to tell you that once you know for sure who Mr. Right is, the plot of The Wedding Plan is so preposterous that it is almost embarrassing.
And as a feminist film critic, I loathe the fact that while The Wedding Plan certainly does pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test, all of the female characters -- with the sole exception of Hulda -- are woefully underdeveloped. A mother, a sister, a best friend, a roommate, a client, and a mysterious handicapped woman are all used as plot devices with minimal individuation and absolutely no backstories. We do not even know when Michal herself became religious (since her mother and sister clearly are not). And while she seems to have enough money to live in a deluxe apartment and still give Shimi the deposit he requires for a huge event at his wedding hall, her job (which we only see her do -- and do badly -- in one scene) is a joke.
Yes, yes -- Noa Koler gives a great performance as Michal, just as Hadas Yaron did in Fill the Void. So I do not begrudge either actress her Ophir Award for Best Actress of her year. And since they are both big screen novices, these awards from the Israel Film Academy say a lot about Burshtein’s skill as a director. But in both films, she cast secular Israeli heartthrobs as her leading man, and that says a lot about Burshtein’s skill as a director too.
If I could lock Burshtein in Hulda’s office, slap her face with fish blood, and ask her what she really wants, I think the answer would be commercial success, and she knows as well as I do that sex is the sine qua non of rom-com success in every language currently spoken on Planet Earth.
The Wedding Plan opens on May 19 at multiple Metro Chicago theatres including the AMC River East in Streeterville, the Landmark Century Center in Lincoln Park, the Century/CineArts in Evanston, and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Follow this link for times and tickets.
For specific complaints about The Wedding Plan (with spoiler alerts), read more on my blog.
Top Photo: Hulda (Odelia Moreh-Matalon) and Michal (Noa Koler) in the inner sanctum.
Bottom Photo: Michal’s sister (Dafi
Alferon) drives Michal and her BFF Feggie (Ronni Merhavi)
to Shimi’s wedding hall on the big day.