January 2, 2011
Many months ago, I heard film director Paul Weiland interviewed on National Public Radio, describing what sounded like an interesting film that had been inspired by the catastrophes that befell Weiland’s bar mitzvah. The title of the film was “Sixty Six,” and I immediately put it on my Netflix queue, but it was flagged as unavailable until very recently. It was worth the wait.
The 2006 British film concerns Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a nebish of a kid — Weiland’s alter ego — who is a misfit even within his own family. As Bernie sees it, the year 1966 will give him the opportunity to improve his image. He is preparing to become bar mitzvah, and besides believing the rhetoric about becoming a “man,” he envisions a reception that will be so grand as to eclipse the expansive party that was thrown for his abusive older brother Alvie (played by Ben Newton.)
Bernie’s inability to fit in either at home or out among his peers seems to escape the notice of his pretty mother, Esther (Helena Bonham Carter), and his eccentric father, Manny (Eddie Marsan). Manny co-owns a successful grocery store with his brother Jimmy(Peter Serafinowicz). When a new supermarket opens next to their store, Manny refuses to entertain an offer to buy the Ruben store, and this is indicative of a rigidity that affects everything he does and his personal relationships.
As Bernie continues with his grandiose plans for his bar mitzvah party, the family’s financial fortunes continue to decline until the boy has to swallow the reality that his reception is going to be modest event indeed. As though that weren’t disappointment enough, he is terrified that Britain’s soccer team will qualify for the World Cup Final, which is scheduled to be played in London on the same date.
The conventional wisdom is that Britain’s footballers are unlikely to survive the competition long enough to play for the championship, but the conventional wisdom is wrong and Brits everywhere are transfixed as their team faces Germany on the day on which Bernie had imagined himself as the axis on which the whole universe would be turning.
In one British review I read, the critic wrote that this film was reminiscent of Neil Simon at his best. I think that’s an apt comparison. Although there is a great deal of comedy in “Sixty Six,” the truth in the story, which Weiland wrote, is sometimes almost painful to watch — and I find that in some of Simon’s work. And yet, also as in Simon’s best work, the truth includes self discovery and redemption, and not only for Bernie.
This movie has a talented ensemble. Marsan’s performance in what for the most part is a very quiet role is at times disturbing as he portrays the humorless Manny’s odd behavior – driving dangerously below the speed limit, checking the car door a half dozen times to make sure it’s locked, hoarding his money in the attic and, most important, closing his mind to the painful period his younger son is living through. Gregg Sulkin is both funny and moving as the heartbroken and increasingly frantic Bernie, and Richard Katz is warm and humorous as the blind rabbi who prepares Bernie and other boys for bar mitzvah.
There were some comments when this film was released that it depended on stereotypes of Jewish people, although opinions seemed to vary as to whether those stereotypes were offensive. We didn’t detect any intent to ridicule or offend Jewish people, but it’s something to be aware of.