If you're trying to find a label for Sixty Six, you may have a harder time than it at first seems. The movie could easily be reduced to coming of age story in the mold of Simon Birch and Almost Famous. It could also be deemed an ethnic comedy in the vein of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Brothers McMullen.
While Sixty Six is both a coming of age story and an ethnic comedy, in this case, the ethnicity happens to be Jewish. That gives the film access to about a century’s worth of conventions, cultural signifiers, and stereotypes associated with everything from the Catskills to the cabaret. Sixty Six, however, appeals to none of those stereotypes, and discovers a Jewish world virtually unheard of in any generation of cinema.
Sixty Six focuses on London’s East End Jews, a sector of Jewish life virtually ignored in film, save for a handful of appearances as gangsters' bankers (in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch the one Jewish character in the London crime scene wasn’t even Jewish). The film regards the Bar Mitzvah of Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a diminutive, ignored outcast whose dream of an elaborate Bar Mitzvah is ruined by being scheduled on the same day as the World Cup Final. We’re expected to know from the start that England was destined to make the final, and that no one will subsequently show up to his big day, but the film’s plot works just as easily for an American audience who’s barely heard of Pele. So Sixty Six simultaneously has every precedent set and no precedent set, and the betwixt and between side of the filmmaking is readily apparent, though probably more so to an American than a British audience.
In terms of the style of comedy, the manic humor of Sixty Six is more akin to Malcolm in the Middle than Mel Brooks. If it does play with Jewish neurosis, is does so from what ostensibly seems to be an outsider’s perspective. Bernie’s obsessive-compulsive father Manny (Eddy Marsan) is played as a tougher, blue collar neurotic far removed from the American Woody Allen image of the anxious schlemiel who can barely get his work done. The jokes range from the borderline scatological, the Cockney smartass, the brazen flashback, and even a touch of British dry wit, but except for moments when Manny gives a speech listing the various illness of family members, there’s nary a hint of Jewish black sarcasm to be found.
Bernie, overwhelmed with the world and his family situation, resembles the 10-year-old stand-in for Woody Allen in Annie Hall. But everyone around him defies expectation. In additon to Manny, mother Esther (the surprisingly well-cast Helena Bonham Carter) doesn’t come close to the Jewish stereotype, and slick businessman Uncle Jimmy (Peter Serafinowicz) is a far cry from Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo. Notably, none of the major actors in the family are Jewish in real life. But is the lack of a sense of familiarity a product of the actors’ lack of understanding of Jewish identity, or is it a product of the cultural differences between English and American Jews?
That’s not to say the performances are disappointing, or that Sixty Six is a bad movie. Marsan, for one, is particularly noteworthy as the heartbreaking, sympathetic father who just wants to do the right thing despite all the misfortune and bad luck sent his way (though he’s far from perfect, even in his intentions). Carter, who’s acquired a reputation for playing weird, spaced-out roles, here plays the grounded, down to earth mother who can sense the strengths and weaknesses of everyone in her life, and is not afraid of pointing them out. Other than a commanding love of her son, Esther is nowhere near Sophie Portnoy. While he doesn’t quite have the range needed for the role, Sulkin, who ironically has a background in professional soccer, has mastered the facial expression of the desperation for attention that you can see on just about any socially ostracized kid who’s ever lived.
The movie is certainly flawed, but by no means painfully so. It’s quite a schmaltzy movie, and the cheese only increases as it goes along. The script has its fair share of stereotypical characters, is not above jokes that make fun of the blind or neighbors with freakishly large breasts. But the inevitable growing up that is demanded of Bernie still manages to be inspiring despite itself, and even the most hardened will struggle not to tear up a little. Although the film promises to be a story about growing up from traumatic childhood experiences, it ends up as more of a father-son bonding story than a coming of age. It’s a most unexpected final note after Manny virtually ignores Bernie for the first two-thirds of the film. If the film’s prime taste is cheese, it’s well-aged, fine cheese.
That the film took two years between its U.K. and U.S. premieres should be no surprise. Despite its charms, Sixty Six is far too Anglo-centric to make a serious dent in the U.S. Yet, it may not even appeal to those American intellectuals who love all things Blighty. Sixty Six is part of a new generation of multicultural British drama, one that first hit the U.S. with Bend It Like Beckham and has seen various incarnations such as My Son the Fanatic, Children of Men, and This is England. It reflects a culture that is questioning the very nature of Britishness, and represents a change of British values to something that more closely resembles the American. Combine this kind of unfamiliar England with the unfamiliar Judaism, and you have a movie that will be utterly baffling to American audiences.
The biggest question with Sixty Six is whether we’ll be seeing more films like this in the future. In addition to representing a new kind of British film, we’re experiencing a new kind of Judaism here in the U.S. As Jews get further and further removed from Ellis Island and World War II, a whole slew of generational eccentricities pop up. In the lighter realm, we get the hip-hop leaning New York drug dealer Luke Shapiro of The Wackness and the slackers of the Judd Apatow film, for which Judaism is more a vehicle for comedy than a source of cultural values. Yet, we also get the globally-minded Judaism of Munich and A Mighty Heart’s Daniel Pearl, where Israel plays an increasingly large role in the American eye.
In that kind of diversity, will films like Sixty Six, which address traditional Jewish issues more subtly and from a more unique angle, find a place in contemporary filmmaking? Paul Weiland, whose previous credits include work with the Mr. Bean television show and City Slickers II, is hardly a pioneering filmmaker. But whether he meant to or not, Weiland may be onto something new here.