The playwright Harold Blumenthal is already dead at the start of “Blumenthal,” and so, for the most part, is the movie, a limp facsimile of a Woody Allen ensembler set in a familiar world of New York Jewish intellectuals — minus only the wit, and the intellect. An extended cameo by Brian Cox as the eponymous scribe proves a mildly amusing balm in this otherwise resoundingly unfunny affair designed as a showcase for writer-director-star Seth Fisher, whose comic gifts remain well hidden even after the end credits have rolled. Following an undistinguished fest run in 2013, the pic opens in limited theatrical release this weekend with VOD soon to follow.
Cox, who gave one of his most memorable screen performances as the real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation,” doesn’t strike one as particularly Semitic, but otherwise makes a good fit for the role of the Neil Simon-ish Blumenthal (sample play title: “Born Again Shiksa”), who keels over while laughing at one of his own jokes during his latest opening night. For the rest of the film, Blumenthal is seen only in excerpts from a “Charlie Rose”-style TV interview, clearly in thrall to his own pompous bloviations as he takes questions from an offscreen interviewer (Bill Sage).
The movie means to be about how Blumenthal’s death ripples through the lives of his friends and family — none of whom, it seems, knew him all that well or liked him very much. They include his estranged college-professor brother, Saul (Mark Blum), who hasn’t forgiven Harold for lifting large chunks of his plays directly from Saul’s own published memoirs; Saul’s wife, Cheryl (Laila Robins), who got her break in Harold’s plays and hasn’t had a good part in years; and their son Ethan (Fisher), a pharma rep with a slew of intimacy and commitment issues. Ethan also can’t quite manage to find a comfortable pair of shoes — which, as the movie’s running gags go, places slightly higher than the one about Saul’s post-traumatic constipation.
The characters and their assorted crises seem to have been given about as much thought as the jokes. Because Cheryl is a woman of a certain age, she must therefore be sex-starved by her inattentive husband — so much so that she makes a fool of herself by lusting after the (obviously gay) neighborhood dog walker. Ethan, meanwhile, seems to take after Dad in the feminine sensitivity department, jettisoning his latest girlfriend over such transgressions as slurping her breakfast cereal too loudly. A little of this character — and of Fisher’s preening, love-me performance — goes a very long way.
Much of the movie turns on Ethan’s hunt for a lifetime achievement award won by Harold and now coveted by Saul for his own mantle. This brings him into contact with the movie’s two most spirited performers: the great Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”), who turns his every purring utterance into a simultaneous confession, confidence and seduction as Harold’s longtime agent; and the lovely Nicole Ansari (the real-life Mrs. Cox) as a mystery woman who had her own complex relationship to the late writer and his work. She holds the screen with a grace and poignancy that suggests something no other character in “Blumenthal” quite seems to possess: an inner life.
Some nice Manhattan location shooting enlivens pic’s otherwise flat visuals, while the soundtrack benefits from multiple up-tempo tracks by Los Angeles-based swing/jazz band Noah and the MegaFauna.