New York filmmaking soloist Alan Berliner bookends his highly regarded “Intimate Stranger” (1991) with another funny, poignant, densely textured look at family and personality in “Nobody’s Business.” While its length weighs against theatrical display, the idiosyncratic doc’s unusual charms and stylistic verve make it a natural for fests, especially those specializing in nonfiction or Jewish themes.
While Berliner’s earlier film pondered the strange, peripatetic life of his maternal grandfather, the subject here, Berliner’s father, Oscar, is very much alive and hilariously cranky. That makes for a film that often resembles a verbal slapstick duet, though the infectious comedy has a serious, very personal edge.
Pic’s central thread, and an inexhaustible comic reservoir, is Oscar’s feistily contrarian and sarcastic attitude toward his son’s efforts to chronicle his life.
The two are heard discussing the film even as Alan narrates it, and Oscar’s scoffing and derogation are constant. No one could possibly care about a life as ordinary as his, he maintains, though in words that are far more scabrous and colorful.
When Alan brings out maps and documents his research has uncovered regarding the Polish village where his grandparents were born, Oscar says he couldn’t be less interested. Alan seems incredulous that the family’s origin could be of absolutely no concern to his father, but Oscar remains as adamant on this subject as he does on many others: If it’s of no immediate use to him, it can go to hell.
Despite such salty protestations, pic easily wins its implicit argument that no life is insignificant. Though Oscar may not have written symphonies or discovered a cure for cancer, his experience has a fascinating richness that spans many of the century’s big themes, from the immigration of European Jews to America, to World War II and the Holocaust, to the loneliness that can befall people amid outward prosperity and success.
The son brings considerable visual snap to his father’s tale, employing fast-cutting, stop-motion and stylized graphics while incorporating interviews with his mother, sister and various cousins as well as old photos and home movies.
Looking at the yellowed stills, Oscar recalls that his immigrant father was a cold, unemotional man who left the affectional side of child rearing to his wife. Other photos show a handsome teenaged Oscar cavorting with buddies and young women while in naval training for World War II; in unequivocal tones, he recalls this as the happiest time of his life.
Oscar’s old 8mm footage, showing the Berliners as an archetypal nuclear family of the ’50s, provokes the one incident in which his verbal barrage suddenly stops. Alan asks why he took the home movies, and his father literally can’t say.
Yet the non-response speaks volumes about his pained regrets over marrying an arty, vivacious European woman who bore him two children but soon felt trapped in the marriage and only stayed, through several strained, unhappy years, for the sake of the kids.
In pic’s final section, Alan remarks sadly that his father has no friends. Besides a daily chat with his doorman, Oscar in retirement has practically no human contact with anyone outside of the small circle provided by his two kids and their families.
One is left to wonder, however, about other possible sources of meaning. Throughout, pic touches only glancingly on the issues of work and religion, subjects that could have stood more direct address.
Still, it is affecting as well as revealing. Alan evidently intended it not only as a way of understanding himself through understanding Oscar, but also as a way of reaching out to his father in his final years.
Such a gesture may not stand much of a chance against a lifetime of emotional reserve, yet pic buries that poignancy in a final and fitting bit of hilarity: Over the end credits, Oscar chides Alan for being a filmmaker rather than an accountant.