Dani Levy’s comedy recalls “Sunset Boulevard” in opening with a narration by a corpse–or a presumed corpse, at least–and for a while it appears that the movie, about a low-life Berlin gambler forced to revisit his Jewish roots when his ultra-orthodox brother arrives from the west with the body of their mother for a traditional burial, will share Billy Wilder’s typical dyspeptic sense of humor. The lead character, in particular, is reminiscent in the early stages of the sort of lovably sleazy shyster that Walter Matthau so often portrayed for Wilder. Unfortunately, as it proceeds “Go for Zucker!” goes softer and softer, and eventually it winds up more Apple Annie than Whiplash Willie. Even Wilder’s Berlin-based picture “One Two Three” sustained its mostly bitter aftertaste better than this. One wants “Zucker” to be, so to speak, both Hasidic and acidic, but instead it wilts in the last laps.
That isn’t to say that Levy’s film doesn’t afford its share of small pleasures. Many are courtesy of Henry Huebchen, who’s amusingly frazzled as the good-natured but penurious schemer Jacob Zucker (nee Zuckerman), a fellow who was left behind the Wall by his mother and older brother Samuel back in the 1960s when they fled the East because he was such a devoted communist. Married to the gentile Marlene (Hannelore Elsner), who’s tired of Jackie’s unreliability and ready to kick him out and divorce him, the guy’s oblivious to his ethnic and religious background and deeply in debt as a result of taking out a big loan from the bank where his son works in order to finance a gentlemen’s club (which Marlene doesn’t even know about). His sole hope of saving himself from jail is to win a big pool international tournament he’s been practicing for all year; but to get in he needs a substantial entrance fee, which his daughter–a masseuse and single mom with a young daughter–refuses to give to him. And things get worse when word arrives that his mother has died and her body is being flown back to Berlin by Samuel (Udo Samel); and her will dictates that for the brothers to share in her inheritance, they must not only see that she has a traditional Jewish service but must hold the seven-day shivah for her as a family–which means that Henry and Marlene have to quickly become orthodox and they, and their two children have to essentially live together with Samuel, his wife and their two children for a week. And during that time, Jackie will have to figure a way to sneak out of the apartment to win his matches in the tournament he’s managed to gain entrance to.
The humor that follows from the situation arises from two things, the clash between the religiously uncomprehending Henry and Marlene and the ultra-orthodox Samuel (whose son Joshua proves even more rigorous than his father), and the ruses Henry contrives to sneak away to his pool tables. And a good many of the twists and turns on this score bring some amusement, even if Levy’s pacing is rather lackadaisical and the overall production less than attractive–the print is obviously blown up to 35mm, and the result is awfully gritty. And the performances often veer to extremes: Huebchen, Elsner and Samel, as well as Anja Franke as Jackie’s daughter Jana, are fine, but Samuel’s wife Golda (Golda Tencer) and children Joshua and Lily (Sebastian Blomberg and Elena Uhlig) and Jackie’s son Thomas (Steffen Groth) come perilously close to caricature, and are sometimes overplayed. Moreover, there are other plot elements: the accommodations between Jackie and Marlene, the effort to heal the rift between Jackie and Samuel (their mother’s goal in setting up her will in the first place), a move by Samuel’s sultry daughter to seduce Jackie’s inexperienced son, and a revelation regarding Jackie’s daughter and Samuel’s son. There’s also the question of whether the rabbi overseeing the shivah will agree that the family has followed the terms of the will, allowing the inheritance to be granted, or assign the money to the alternative charitable beneficiaries instead. In these, the tone is more sentimental or, in some cases, comically overripe.
The result is a movie of fits and starts, sharpness and stumbles. And it comes up short in the end.