You don’t have to be Jewish to love borscht belt humor, or gay to love camp, or French to love farce. But when all three are thrown into a blender with a dollop of generic family dysfunction, as is the case in “Let My People Go!,” oy vey doesn’t begin to address the result.
This feature film debut of French director Mikael Buch is a sendup of Jewish and gay culture and identity, which still isn’t enough to make it a novel comedy. It was ages ago that “The Birdcage” (a Hollywood remake of “La Cage aux Folles”) deftly mixed farce, gay camp, and Jewish heritage. “Let My People Go!” doesn’t come close to improving on it.
Buch’s film opens in a surreal, fairy tale Finland where nebbish French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) works as a mailman in a neighborhood of candy-colored houses. His own domestic bliss with hunky Finnish lover Teemu (Jarkko Niemi) is shattered, slapstick style, by a misunderstanding involving a dead postal customer and a parcel full of Euros. Teemu sends Reuben packing, which lands him back with his dysfunctional family in Paris.
That family is a crazy quilt of caricatures: Reuben’s mother, Rachel (Almodóvar favorite Carmen Maura), is an asthmatic who fusses over him; his sister, Irène (Amira Casar), is an unhappily married whiner; his father, Nathan (Jean-François Stévenin), is a philanderer who’s kept a secret mistress for 20 years. Buch gets comic mileage from the culture clash of Reuben’s parents’ devout Judaism and Reuben’s openly gay life. But Reuben, too, is little more than a cartoonish klutz and drama queen whose antics are less flamboyantly fun than irritating.
Buch piles on the sight gags and shtick so thick that the movie seems a parody of French farce. Hope momentarily surfaces when Reuben flees his family for the local gay bar’s “Coming Out of Egypt” theme night. He finds himself pursued by closeted family friend and pillar of the Jewish community Maurice (Jean-Luc Bideau). “My life is one bad Jewish joke after another,” wails hapless Reuben. Sadly, this is all too true.
Buch cuts back and forth between Paris and Finland, where Teemu pines for Reuben and still keeps kosher. Despite a likable performance from Niemi, there’s not enough investment in either of the lovers to sustain interest in whether they’ll reunite.
Buch may have been thinking of channeling Almodóvar with his highly stylized, retro visuals, the frenetic slapstick, and the presence of Maura. Despite some laughs, the film pushes neither the rom nor the com edge far enough. The characters and situations are too broad and too predictable to save “Let My People Go!” from being a sugar-coated comedy that reaffirms more stereotypes than it upends.Loren King can be reached at