Blumenthal: Film Review

Despite some amusing one-liners, this rueful comedy is too self-consciously quirky.

Seth Fisher's debut feature depicts the personal travails of the family members of a deceased renowned playwright.

It’s appropriate that the deceased title character of Blumenthal is described as having died laughing at his own joke. The same could well be said of this debut feature by director-writer-star Seth Fisher, which too often suffers from a smug satisfaction over its purposefully deadpan humor. Reminiscent of the films of the '70s in which actors like George Segal and Elliott Gould played endlessly neurotic Jewish characters, this effort offers some mild amusement but lacks the anarchic wit to make it anything more than a slight diversion.

Brian Cox plays successful playwright Harold Blumenthal, who is seen only in clips from a Charlie Rose-style interview show in which he discusses his life and career. While his presence looms over the proceedings -- not surprising, considering Cox’s estimable screen charisma -- the story revolves around the personal turmoil of Blumenthal's remaining family members.

They include his estranged sibling, Saul (Mark Blum), whose perception that his brother plagiarized his life as inspiration for his plays has resulted in an angry jealousy that manifests itself as severe constipation; Saul’s second wife, Cheryl (Laila Robins), an actress who used to star in Harold’s plays and is attempting to resume her career only to be plagued by doubts about her aging appearance; and Saul’s son, Ethan (Fisher), a pharmaceutical sales rep with relationship issues who early on dumps his acupuncturist girlfriend (Mei Melancon).

Bogged down in silly attempts at symbolism -- Ethan hawks birth control pills and hormone replacements but seems to have no understanding of the women in his life, and ill-fitting footwear is a running motif -- the film is a quirky study of mostly unappealing characters whose travails feel cliche ridden. Each one eventually manages to find some sort of peace -- Cheryl, who wrestles with the idea of plastic surgery, regains her self-confidence via a make-out session with her gay dog walker (Kevin Isola); Saul overcomes both his emotional and physical blockages after meeting Harold’s mysterious lover (Nicole Ansari), who reveals a secret about his writing; and Ethan, with the helpful advice of his best friend (Alexander Cendese), manages to overcome his relationship issues.

Despite some reasonably funny one-liners, the film never manages to develop a sustained comic rhythm, succumbing to such familiar rom-com devices as when Ethan frantically runs through the streets of New York to reconnect with his girlfriend.

The director-star, making the admittedly brave choice of playing an unlikable character, is unable to make us care about him despite his foibles; theater pros Blum and Robins do the best they can with their tired material; and Fred Melamed has some amusing moments as Blumenthal’s sardonic agent. One winds up waiting impatiently for Cox’s recurring brief appearances, indicating that Blumenthal might have been far more effective if it had featured more of Blumenthal himself.  

Opens March 28 (GoDigital)

Production: Gone Fishing Pictures, Act Zero Films

Cast: Seth Fisher, Brian Cox, Fred Melamed, Laila Robins, Mark Blum, Mei Melancon

Director-screenwriter: Seth Fisher

Producers: Alexander Cendese, Garrett P. Fennelly, Jean-Raphael Ambron, Jesse Ozeri, Zak Mulligan

Executive producers: Jason Ludman, James Baron, David McWhinnie

Director of photography: Zak Mulligan

Editors: Seth Fisher, Alex Kopit

Production designer: Marie Lynn Wagner

Costume designer: David Tabbert

Composer: Noah and the Megafauna

Not rated, 86 minutes