A deadbeat boytshik takes his kidnapped son, his kvetching elders and his father’s fresh corpse all on a road trip to the Ukraine in “Simon Konianski,” a Wes Anderson-like family comedy underscored by several weighty references to the Holocaust. Although “Horse Thieves” director Micha Wald’s sophomore effort feels like a Belgian mash-up of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Everything Is Illuminated,” its savvy lensing and Jonathan Zaccai’s lead performance make for a passable, if not entirely original, piece of cinematic chutzpah. Whether the pic will travel overseas is unclear, but it could score some gelt during its late July release in Gaul.
From the lengthy opening credits — which show thirtysomething procrastinator Simon Konianski (Zaccai) moving back to the grim apartment of his dad, Ernest (Popeck), in the Belgian city of Liege — it’s clear where scribe-helmer Wald plants his flag. Between the upbeat Samba music (used to amplify the wackiness throughout), Simon’s flashy Adidas jumpsuits and oversized eyeglasses, and an array of colorful decors captured in glossy widescreen, the influence of both Anderson and the Coen brothers is more than apparent.
Where Wald (whose short, “Alice et moi,” was the basis for this film) tries something different is in his often overreaching attempts at Yiddish comedy, as Simon wages war against his father, his paranoid uncle Maurice (Abraham Leber) and his dismissive aunt Mala (Irene Herz). The battle is doomed from the start, given Simon’s unemployed couch-potato status (though he does earn some money as a drug-testing guinea pig), his obsession with the shiksa mother (Marta Domingo) of his son, Hadrien (Nassim Ben Abdelmoumen), and the fact that he’s a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause.
More cartoonish than clever, the family sparring has the Konianskis constantly shouting out lines like, “Don’t use the word ‘Yid,’ you schmuck!” or else yapping about Nazi raids and Stasi spies — as if Jewish humor could only exist in the form of pure caricature. Pic works much better when Wald portrays the touchy grandfather-father-son relationship, as Simon, against his better beliefs, tries to educate Hadrien about his grandparents’ troubled past in war-torn Eastern Europe.
When Ernest suddenly dies, Simon takes the clan on the road to the Ukraine for an improvised funeral, and it’s here that the camerawork by Jean-Paul de Zaeytijd (“Eldorado”) is most impressive, framing the voyage against shuttered Polish towns, barren farmlands and deep gray skies. A memorable sequence features a detour to the site of the Majdanek extermination camp, and the location gives the narrative some needed last-minute grounding in a reality that until that point had seemed purely folkloric.
Despite the lampoonish qualities of his character, Zaccai (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) manages to reveal a genuine frustration behind Simon’s adolescent attitudes, pushing the stereotyping toward something more earnest. The cast of zany seniors, however, is a continuous headache, even if Popeck (“The Pianist”) tries to tone things down at pivotal moments.
Like the oft-stunning photography, other tech credits are highly mastered.