Menashe (PG)

Drama 81 min. July 28, 2017
By Daniel Felsenthal
In his first feature, Joshua Z. Weinstein prods righteously at the paternalism of Orthodox Jewry while working in the mode of a slacker comedy. The director plays on our indignation as his widower protagonist -- Lustig, a Menashe playing a Menashe -- loses custody of his son because of a literal interpretation of the Torah that prohibits single men from raising children. The plot is an often plodding account of failures of a Menashe Lustig -- as a father, a Jew, a grocery store clerk -- jolted by occasional episodes that demonstrate Menashe's character. Crucially, the critical eye Weinstein applies to fundamentalist religion endears us to his protagonist. In one scene, a teenaged girl, out of frame, cries because her rabbi will not let her parents send her to college. In the next, a pious brother-in-law criticizes Menashe for refusing to wear a jacket or a hat, and suddenly the protagonist's schlubbiness seems like welcome rebellion.

Weinstein's pedigree is in documentaries, and his scenes often amount to talking, sometimes screaming -- usually bearded -- heads in rooms, shot with a handheld camera. In one of the more visually adventurous sequences, lens moving in and out of focus, Weinstein films the Burning of the Chametz, a pre-Passover tradition in which Orthodox Jews publicly set fire to the leavened bread in their cupboards and stores. Immediately after, Menashe spills several cases of gefilte fish on the street and receives a vindictive scolding from his boss for wasting expensive food. Weinstein's juxtapositions are as clever a means of skewering religious hypocrisy as his deadpan sense of humor. But he manages to dole out empathy to everyone including Menashe's rabbi, his brother-in-law and the other strict and frum Haredim.
Joshua Z. Weinstein Menashe Lustig Joshua Z Weinstein, Alex Lipschultz, Musa Syeed A24

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