Stop me if you’ve heard this one: So, a depressed cantor and his childhood music teacher walk into a bar…
In director Nathan Silver’s Sundance Film Festival comedy Between the Temples, Jason Schwartzman plays another one of his lovable weirdos—this time, a cantor who’s lost his voice to grief after the untimely passing of his exceedingly talented, very hot novelist wife. Ben Gottlieb is a man warped by mourning—the kind of guy who will walk into his neighborhood bar, order too many Mississippi mudslides, and then pick a fight with the guy who’s been making fun of him all night only to earn himself a black eye. And yes, before you ask, he has moved back in with his mothers (played with impeccable busybody energy by Caroline Aaron and Dolly De Leon).
Ben’s sadness might be formidable, but it’s no match for Carol Kane’s Carla—a gregarious Aquarius who picks Ben up off the floor, dusts off his yarmulke, and dabs his face with ice before driving him home. Although she doesn’t recognize him at first, they eventually figure out that she was once his music teacher. Beyond this shared history, the two come to realize they’ve actually got a lot in common. Carla is also grieving her late partner, and like Ben, this loss has sent her down a somewhat unusual path: She’s decided that she wants to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 70. This story apparently comes from personal inspiration, as Silver’s mother also took adult bat mitzvah classes.
Ben resists this request at first, but like most of Kane’s characters, Carla refuses to take “please, God, no” for an answer. And so begins a delightful screwball comedy filled with soul, a Jewish Harold and Maude with a warm, nostalgic aesthetic.
Silver’s script is a fast-moving freight train of one-liners and sight gags, and small details like the local rabbi’s tie—which features photos of all his daughters—push each scene over the top into “laugh-out-loud funny” territory. Schwartzman’s sensitivity adds necessary dimension to Ben, who could’ve easily become an unsympathetic punchline in the wrong hands. Kane, meanwhile, is having a blast in her element as an artsy oddball, but her best scenes are the ones that highlight Carla’s vulnerability.
As the daughter of non-religious Communists—a so-called “red diaper baby”—no Temple would’ve allowed Carla to study the Torah even if she wanted to. Carla’s isolation from her Jewish heritage extended through her marriage as well; her husband, a diehard atheist, would never have humored the idea of her going to Temple. The film’s most painful scene finds Carla’s son mocking her wish to hold a bat mitzvah over dinner, chiding her in front of her grandchildren as though she’s just as small as they are. (Even here, however, Silver can’t resist planting a laugh with the restaurant’s implausibly humongous menus.)
It doesn’t take long before Ben and Carla’s relationship bleeds outside the usual teacher-student boundaries. When the two stage a lesson in her home to watch his bar mitzvah tape on her VCR, they accidentally wind up tripping on mushroom tea. This scene would’ve been the most side-splitting set piece in the movie, were it not for a gloriously twisted Pauline Chalamet cameo and an even-more fucked-up scene involving the rabbi’s daughter, a graveyard, and some dirty voicemails from Ben’s late wife. (Props to actress Madeline Weinstein for an unforgettably committed performance as a jilted, emotionally fragile twenty-something who wants nothing more than to be seen as “edgy.”)
… And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s the film’s coup de grace, a Shabbat dinner so physically, unbearably awkward that I found myself chewing on a cardboard popcorn box out of sheer second-hand cringe.
The emotional revelation that precipitates this humiliating circus is hardly a surprise, but it still feels at odds with the rest of the script as well as Schwartzman and Kane’s performances. It makes sense that Carla’s non-judgmental maternal presence would spark feelings of devotion in Ben, but even as he winds up spending the night in her home and sleeping in her son’s pajamas, their bizarre chemistry never convincingly adds up to anything beyond a familial kind of intimacy.
Silver clearly wanted to go out with an over-the-top “bang,” but part of me left the theater imagining a different kind of film—one that allowed Ben and Carla’s relationship to settle more organically. Then again, that dinner scene was the most deliciously stressful thing I’ve seen this side of Shiva Baby, so maybe we just forgive that little idiosyncrasy and call it a day.
Ultimately, Between the Temples is as heartwarming as it is hilarious, right down to its final scene. Whatever we want to label it, the mutual acceptance that Ben and Carla find in one another is as redemptive as faith itself—always loving, always supportive. Let’s just hope they figure out their feelings before the next family dinner.