- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Israeli comedy “Ushpizin,” which orchestrated farcical complications around a Hassidic couple in Jerusalem too impoverished to afford a proper Succoth observance, seems to have been running a certain amount of long-distance interference for another domestic farce, the German import “Go For Zucker!,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

The setting is now Berlin, where a middle-aged pool hustler called Jaeckie Zucker (Henry Huebchen), in hock to debtors for about 44,000 euros, struggles to seize overlapping opportunities to improve his sagging fortunes.

One opportunity seems to preclude the other. The devious effort to be in two places at once runs Jaeckie so ragged that he begins the movie’s flashback scenario as a hospital patient. Backtracking, we discover a Jaeckie who felt strangely confident on the competitive front. He believes he’s ready to lick the competition in a fifth annual European Pool Classic. In straight-up matches, he’s been losing only when he intends to.

Despite this hot streak, he needs to con at least one susceptible crony or family member into paying the entry fee. His long-suffering wife Marlene (Hannelore Ensler) has already kicked him out. He’s an embarrassment to grown children Thomas (Steffen Groth), a banker, and Jana (Anja Franke), a masseuse. Nevertheless, he imposes on their filial loyalty.

On a distant home front, Jaeckie’s estranged mother dies in Frankfurt. She leaves a will stipulating that her two sons, Fast Jaeckie and devout, upstanding Samuel (Udo Samuel), also estranged for about 40 years, can share her estate only if they sit shiva together for the traditional week. She expects them to make a sincere effort to reconcile all lingering hostilities. A rabbi named Goldberg (Rolf Hoppe) is entrusted with monitoring their compliance.

Getting to his matches in the tournament obliges Jaeckie to play fast and loose with shiva obligations. He dives headlong into the dual deceptions, becoming such a frenzied imaginary invalid that he eventually has a private ambulance on standby and logs more fleeting hospital time than family bonding. He fakes a heart attack in the early going in order to facilitate bogus checkups on the rebound. His family circle has been expanded by the arrival of Samuel’s wife Golda (Golda Tescher) and their two grown children, Joshua and Lily (Sebastian Blomberg and Elena Uhlig), who seem to have a propensity for love affairs with first cousins.

Generous to a fault where Jaeckie is concerned, director Dani Levy and his co-writer Holger Franke formulate a glib, blithe, pell-mell case for letting him off lightly, as an irresistibly stimulating and forgivable reprobate. The conception is calculated to reconcile more than secular and religious Jewish opposites. We discover that Samuel and his mother defected to the West. In the post-Communist period, Jaeckie remains partial to the cliches and prejudices of a Red youth. I’m not quite sure what the matched set of carnal cousins are supposed to reconcile, but not every joke and element in “Go For Zucker!” is nailed down firmly to a wobbly foundation.

The distributor is advertising “Zucker” as “the first German-Jewish comedy since World War II,” which sounds like a far-fetched claim even if one eliminates such Hollywood intrusions as Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair” and “One, Two, Three.” A hodgepodge of fresh and stale comedic impulses, “Zucker” seems to have been well-timed to spare the German film industry from brooding too gravely about Oliver Hirschbiegel’s historical powerhouse “Downfall.” The dramatic feature was trumped in the best film, director and actor categories by “Zucker.”

Mr. Levi does possess considerable aptitude for knockabout social farce. He can keep quite a bit of humorous characterization and double-dealing in a proficiently high gear. The problem with his methodology is that a time comes where scrambling and evasion become repetitive. At that point a Zucker willing to talk things out with the relatives he’s been hustling all week long might be more useful than a tournament underdog whose every shot is supposedly crucial. I’d be more intrigued by a reminiscence of Jaeckie’s first experience of “The Hustler.”

**

TITLE: “Go For Zucker!” (“Alles auf Zucker!” in German)

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject mattter and treatment, consistent with an R; occasional profanity, facetious violence, sexual candor and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Dani Levy. Screenplay by Mr. Levy and Holger Franke. Cinematography by Carl F. Koschnick. Production design by Christian M. Goldbeck. Costume design by Lucie Bates. Music by Niki Reiser. In German with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: www.firstrunfeatures.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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