A man in dire financial straits whose family has big problems to boot determines to save the day by a winning a competition.
Sure we’ve seen it before, about a million times, even when the competition is a dance competition, maybe even when it’s a tango competition. But have we ever seen it when the competitor is a Hasidic rabbi who is forbidden to touch his dance partner (since she is not his wife)? I think not!
Well, that idea and a kind of geniality is about all Tango Shalom has going for it, which I enjoyed but The Boy felt frustrated about because it’s not better. In fact, we both agreed it felt like someone’s first movie. It’s not, though: The director is Gabriel Bologna, whose parents Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor (character actors who shared an Oscar nom for their adaptation of their own Broadway play, Lovers and Other Strangers) are both featured in the film.
The good here: It’s a broadly comic movie that has a few laughs and treats its characters sympathetically. It also moves along at a—well, I’ll call it an interesting pace, because it’s breakneck in some places and in other places ridiculously slow, and I actually kind of liked the shift in emphasis between from what would normally be considered major plot points to extensive montages of our hero wandering around Crown Heights wrestling with his religious dilemma. I also like the balls-to-the-wall absurdity of solving the dilemma by dancing the tango with a balloon to prevent the two bodies from ever touching.
And, look, as I’ve said, for me that was enough. Also, I find particular enjoyment where people’s moral codes are put to the test (Friendly Persuasion, God’s Neighbors, Machine Gun Preacher, etc.)—even if, as in this case, the solution is clearly a gross technicality and entirely against the spirit of the prohibition. And it’s not that these are the only good aspects to the movie, but by God, they better be enough for you because this movie feels shockingly amateurish at times.
I’m following Len Kabasinski’s latest shoot, Pact of Vengeance, and looking at the stills and re-viewing of his works, and one of the thing that strikes me is how ragged everyone ends up looking. Contrast that to someone like Anna Biller (The Love Witch) where every scene is going to be beautiful and everyone’s going to look beautiful in it. (Biller lugs huge lights around for her shoots and works as her own grip and gaffer, as well as shooting on film. It’s not for nothing she has two feature credits to Len’s 10 to 20.)
So it’s a little shocking to see everyone look so ragged in this film—more toward the Len side than the Anna side, if you know what I mean—and also look stiff and unconvincing a lot of the time. It’s hard to say where the fault lies, though I suspect this was a team effort. A clue may be in the dancing scenes: Our heroic rabbi, Moshe (Jos Laniado, who co-wrote the script) has to dance, obviously, and we’re all familiar with the tricks used in movies to make it look like someone is dancing when they’re not. The two basic ways of handling this well are to do a really good job with the shot transitions (and these days, they’ll CGI in a face, a la Black Swan), or to kind of ham it up and let the audience know we’re all in on the joke. (I’m pretty sure the Naked Gun movies pulled this trick, and I saw Elvira do it live once quite hilariously.) Here it looks like Laniado knows a little footwork, but the camera is trying to convince you he doesn’t because it’s so choppy—and the stiffness in his upper body makes it really, really hard to suspend belief. It’s a very strange effect, overall.
There are a lot of strange effects, like Moshe’s brother (played by his real-life brother, Claudio) seeming very old. The “aesthetic imbalance” between Moshe and his wife (played by Judi Beecher) is not so obvious, especially with the “Karen” haircut they give Beecher, but Claudio seems just a bit too ready for the retirement home to be wooing Marci Fine. Meanwhile, it’s sweet to have your daughter playing your daughter, but Justine Laniado does not look like she could be the offspring of Jos Laniado and Judi Beecher—though she does like she could be the offspring of Jos and the woman who starred in his 2009 short about tango—and does not sound here like she’s ever done a line reading before.
These are little jarring moments. The big jarring moments are what diminished the experience for The Boy. Like, when Moshe meets Viviana Nieves (the lovely and graceful Karina Sminoff, who seems to have done something to put her lips into a permanent “duck” state), she gets a phone call and, in about 30 seconds, ends up being dumped by her fiancee/dance partner, and instantly coming up with the idea to replace him with the dancing rabbi.
Then we get, I dunno, forty minutes of the rabbi struggling with his dilemma. I actually felt like, oh, the whole movie is going to be about him struggling over it, and the dance competition is going to be a kind of afterthought. But the movie goes for almost a full two hours—and to its credit only feels overlong at the end, and during some of these “How am I going to dance the tango, Hashem?” sequences.
So he goes to a rabbi, a priest, an imam and a mystic. No, really. And they’re all as useless as you might imagine. The movie struggles in its feel-good attempt to equate religions because it’s frankly hard to say all religions are the same but also have a value beyond fortune cookie bromides. The rabbi says “On the one hand…but on the other hand…but on the other hand…” and goes on and on like that which is broad enough as a stereotype to qualify as antisemitism. The priest and the imam both say something along the lines of “Find a way to do it without sacrificing your beliefs.” And the Hindu gives him a balloon. The balloon that he uses to dance with.
The balloon is another issue where the lack of camerawork shows up as the point is to show how it keeps him from touching his dance partner but there are tons of shots where it looks like they’re smack up against each other, balloon or no balloon. And through a conspiracy to hide what he’s doing from the rest of his community, Moshe unites his warring family, and isn’t that what community is all about?
The ham-fisted, after-school special message of the movie is “All religions should get along because they all serve God.” I mean, this gets down the final scene where the rabbi, the priest and the mystic are sent a banana by the imam who can’t go to a wedding reception, where the peels represent the various religions and the banana is God. Subtlety is not to be found here, people, though I give the movie credit for showing the Muslims being hostile to Moshe, even though the imam does try to help. On the flip-side, the mystic looks like an absolute creep. I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault, but man, it’s a hard line between “being serene” and “looking zonked out”.
I could find fault with it endlessly, but I didn’t really. I was willing to go along with the absurdity and ham-fistedness for what struck me as reasonable cause. It’s a big ask, though, and the Boy wasn’t into it. Looks like they trying to maneuver the film into a My Big Fat Greek Wedding indie-breakout mold. Worth a shot, I guess, and anything that shows broad, ethnic humor doesn’t have to be mean and can be allowed to exist seems like a worthwhile endeavor to me.