Modern German cinema finally gets its first all-out Jewish laffer in “Go for Zucker: An Unorthodox Comedy,” a pacey, politically incorrect but good-natured entertainment that’s raked in a chipper $4.5 million-plus since release in early January. A kind of “My Jewish Funeral (in Berlin),” pic lets loose an experienced cast of vets on a well-honed script that has broad appeal offshore, especially if distribs can overcome auds’ resistance to Teuton comedies. Stateside chances look warm, especially among upscale urban auds.
Vet Henry Huebchen plays charming shyster Jacob Zuckermann, aka Jaeckie Zucker, who was left to fend for himself in the East when his mother fled to the West with his elder brother Samuel as the Wall went up in 1961. Since the fall of the Wall, he’s turned to professional gambling to earn a crust, while his shiksa wife, Marlene (fellow vet Hannelore Elsner), runs a dry-cleaning biz downstairs.
Unfortunately the chips are finally down for Jaeckie, who has five days to settle a €44,500 ($60,000) bank debt before the bailiffs arrest him. Worse, Marlene has finally kicked him out and wants a divorce.
Jaeckie’s scheme is to enter a European pool tournament with a €100,000 jackpot. But he doesn’t even have enough for the €5,000 registration fee — and his daughter, Jana (Anja Franke), isn’t keen to loan her father any more money.
Then news arrives that Jaeckie’s mom has died in Frankfurt and left her fortune to her two sons. The catch is that her siblings only get the dough if they arrange a full orthodox funeral for her in Berlin. Problem one: Jaeckie long ago rejected his Jewish roots, while Samuel (Udo Samel), whom he despises, is the whole fundamentalist deal. Problem two: Custom dictates the whole family has to remain at home during the seven-day mourning period (shivah), which is when the pool tournament takes place.
In a setup that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond would have had fun with, pic clicks into gear as Samuel and his equally orthodox son, Joshua (Sebastian Blomberg), arrive in Berlin as Jaeckie and Marlene — temporarily reconciled — take a crash course in Judaism and quickly kosher up their kitchen. As a checkout girl tells Marlene at the supermarket, “It’s never too late to turn Jewish.”
However, Jaeckie’s biggest problem is how to keep stealing away from the apartment to attend the pool tournament. This involves him in setting up ever more elaborate masquerades.
Swiss-born helmer Dani Levy, most of whose previous pics (“Silent Night,” “The Giraffe,” “I’m the Father”) haven’t been noted for either their lightness or pacing, directs as if liberated from the need to score artistic cred and serious points. His ultra-lean script, co-written with Holgar Franke, is combined with lively music by Niki Reiser, mobile lensing and tight cutting to create a character-driven entertainment that stays just the right side of purely physical farce.
In addition, Levy’s background as an actor pays off in the performances. Huebchen and Elsner are aces as the likable gambler and his long-suffering wife. Though the ending, which celebrates family values, is hardly a surprise, it feels perfectly natural given the warm ensemble of the whole cast, which hasn’t a weak link from adults to children.
Only glitch is film’s slightly grungy look in its blowup from 16mm. Originally financed as a TV movie, with a reported budget of $2 million, and shot in only 24 days with two cameras, it’s hardly up to the high tech standards of most German cinema. But its energy and big-heartedness are more than compensation.