Perhaps the only “Romeo and Juliet” adaptation lacking star-crossed lovers, Eve Annenberg’s comedy offers parallel storylines: One concerns a middle-aged nurse-cum-graduate student who, along with a trio of larcenous Hasidic dropouts, works on an updated Yiddish translation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Meanwhile, selected scenes from the play itself unfold sporadically, magically projecting the translators into key roles. Hearing the majestic iambic pentameter rendered in the sharply rising and falling cadences of colloquial Yiddish proves wackily charming, but the lack of correlation between the two plots makes the result feel unfocused. Bowed July 8 in Gotham, pic promises more than it delivers.
Producer-director-writer Annenberg casts herself as the film’s disillusioned, been-around nurse/grad student (she also plays Juliet’s nurse in the reimagined Shakespearean sections), whose backstory involves a lost daughter by an ultra-religious ex. This now-grown daughter (Melissa Weisz) appears as Juliet in the play-within-a-movie, though her role in the wraparound plot is minimal.
The reconfigured Yiddish variations on “Romeo and Juliet” successfully transpose Shakespeare’s Italian tale to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The warring Montagues and Capulets become the Satmar and Lubavitch sects of Orthodox Judaism; Juliet’s balcony is now a brownstone fire escape, the Capulet masque is a Purim party, and period costume design is subsumed by traditional black Hasidic garb. But the conflict between love and family loyalty, as well as the Satmar/Lubavitch dissonance, fail to resonate beyond the play’s parameters.
Still, the three wisecracking Hasidic fools — Lazer Weiss (as Lazer/Romeo), Mendy Zafir (Mendy/Benvolio) and Bubbles Yoeli Weiss (Mo/Mercutio) — compellingly occupy centerstage in both plots by basically playing themselves. Exiled by their families and cut off from their only frame of reference, the Orthodox community, they are unprepared for secular reality. Speaking heavily accented English, they never read Shakespeare and have only vaguely heard of “Romeo and Juliet.” They have never seen a movie or watched television, and have no concept of work other than Kabbalah study. Indeed, they possess no moral sense outside religious strictures.
Their wisecracking, marginal, totally amoral existence, seen in antic montages as they sleep in a stolen van, steal credit cards, sniff coke, smoke weed and try to stiff their own attorney, constitutes a 21st-century riff on the Marx Brothers. Yet Mendy, at least, still performs his Orthodox rites, dutifully winding his tefillin around his arms and head, his unobtrusively presented homosexuality hinting that his banishment may not have been religiously motivated. Apparently, it was helmer Annenberg’s encounter with these madcaps that inspired the film (Weiss and Zafir also produced), and Shakespeare was merely a late addition to the concept.
Thesping by this amateur band of outsiders generally excels, with the exception of Weisz’s Juliet, whose beauty and gestural skill do not quite compensate for her wildly divergent line readings. Annenberg herself exhibits more attitude than acting. Production values honor the pic’s improvisational feel.