SBIFF Review: Play’s the Thing in the Nervy, Neurotic Family Comedy “Blumenthal”

The stage is set for wild day in Manhattan when a famed playwright passes and his brother is eager to reclaim the legacy he believes is his in this...
Seth Fisher in a scene from Blumenthal

When casting yourself as a lead in a movie that you’ve written for your feature directorial debut, it is a dangerous move to interlace the film with a blowhard playwright (Brian Cox) reflecting on his career on a Charlie Rose-esque talk show, the fear being that you’ll be treating the audience to as much of an ego trip as its central character is on. But even though “Blumenthal” may be about salty, self-possessed New Yorkers who give too little thought to others in their quest to be taken seriously, writer/director/actor Seth Fisher adds just the right amount of spice to this finely observed comedy.

Although the Blumenthal of the title and the opening two minutes is revealed to be dead, taken from the earth while laughing at one of his own jokes during a staging of one of his plays, he has left behind a psychic chokehold on his brother Saul’s family. None of them are particularly broken up about “Uncle” Harold’s passing, but the untimely death pushes Saul (Mark Blum) to ask his son Ethan (Fisher) to retrieve one of Harold’s lifetime achievement awards from his agent Jimmy (“A Serious Man”’s Fred Melamed).

When Jimmy asks Ethan if Saul “still feels the same about things,” it’s obvious Pandora’s box has been opened. The exact nature of Saul and Harold’s discord is teased out while Ethan is put through a wild goose chase in Manhattan, while the fallout leads to Saul’s actress wife Cheryl (Laila Robins) to start worrying about her looks and Ethan to reevaluate what he wants in a partner after he’s dumped his longtime girlfriend (Mei Melançon) shortly before embarking on his father’s request.

With a score of nimble plucking from the jazz outfit Noah and the Megaphauna putting an extra bounce in “Blumenthal”’s step, the film clearly takes a note out of Woody Allen’s playbook, yet it establishes a different cadence for its fussy neurotics. Characters pick each other apart through fast-pitched dialogue and while the smoothed-out camerawork is a tipoff to the film’s modernity, the cruder nature of what they’re willing to do or say make it unmistakable. The result is sharp in both its execution and its intent, though as in all tales of family feuds, there are elements that become murky.

Fisher does well in balancing out the stories of where the day takes his three leads and keeping the focus limited, but gives himself the least appealing scenes of the trio as the film’s inexplicably dips into Ethan’s thoughts in the moments leading up to his most appalling behavior. Perhaps too effective in conveying the mess of ideas in his head, the ugliness of Ethan’s encounters with random women before and after he breaks up with his girlfriend prove reliable for an easy laugh, but feel as though they’re from a different film and strain credibility.

Still, if one is willing to forgive those brief trespasses, there’s a lot to enjoy in “Blumenthal,” from the well-built repartee that Fisher ably slips clever comebacks into to the intriguing notion behind Saul’s grudge regarding what rights does a family of artists have to their shared personal history. Despite the uptight nature of the Blumenthals, “Blumenthal” feels far more relaxed, allowing their raw nerves to ease our own.

“Blumenthal” is now available on iTunes.

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