2 stars (out of four)
Anyone who has ever been lured to someone else's holiday dinner with the promise that it will be quick and painless knows that these events are very rarely quick, and they're never, ever painless. This truth holds at the Stuckmans' Los Angeles home, where the Passover s eder has arrived with all its attendant stress: infighting, stepchildren, drug problems, religious fundamentalism, post traumatic stress. Ira Stuckman (Michael Lerner) is the grouchy father of five children and husband to the long-suffering Peggy ( Lesley Ann Warren). He dotes on his daughter Nikki (Shiri Appleby), who is essentially an overeducated prostitute, runs drug tests on his teenage son (Zeke (Ben Feldman) and despairs of his eldest son (Max Greenfield as Ethan) ever finding his place in the world. Jennifer (Meredith Scott Lynn), Ira's child from a disastrous first marriage, oozes resentment from every pore. Meanwhile, the youngest, Lionel (Adam Lamberg), has been pretending to be autistic for at least a decade, largely because it's easier than engaging in conversation with any of his absurd relatives.
The family has gathered for a traditional seder, which Peggy has painstakingly prepared according to the religious dicta set forth by Ethan, who, following the demise of his business, has embraced ultraconservative Judaism. The rest of the family is, shall we say, less religiously inclined.
They're joined by Artur, Ira's dad, a Holocaust survivor who drags his suitcase along with him everywhere, because, as he puts it, you never know when they're going to come for you. And by the way, Ira starts off the night by inadvertently swallowing an e cstasy tablet.
It's a regular powder keg, and there's nothing like the expectations and stress of a beloved tradition to send the whole thing up in flames. Watching this movie is kind of like being sprayed with emotional vomit: There's an explosion of bitterness, or ill-disguised guilt, or naked hatred, and then, just as you're recovering from the onslaught, there's more.
This is not a relaxing experience, certainly, and while there are very funny moments (including almost every interaction between Lerner and Feldman) there's also a great deal of shrillness. The cultural stereotypes--the princess, the overwrought mother--are out in full force.
First-time director Salvador Litvak takes some interesting risks, using Ira's accidental drug use to take the s eder dinner from earthbound hell to a psychedelic swirl of colors and sounds. Unfortunately, the film's short bursts of inspired dialogue can't compensate for the (much more frequent) stretches of incessant, empty chatter. The acting is fine, but not outstanding; Appleby and Greenfield rise a bit above the fray, lending their characters the multi dimensional personalities the others largely miss.
By the time the ending rolls around, as we watch the slow unclamping of jaws from jugulars, we feel exhausted. Imagine how the actors must have felt.
'When Do We Eat?'
Directed by Salvador Litvak; written by Nina Davidovich and Litvak; photographed by M. David Mullen; edited by Richard Halsey; production design by Bernt Capra; produced by Steven Wolfe. A THINKfilm release; opens Friday at Landmark's Renaissance Place. Running time: 1:33. MPAA rating: R (for drug use, language and some sexual content).
Ira - Michael Lerner
Peggy - Lesley Ann Warren
Zeke - Ben Feldman
Artur - Jack KlugmanCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun