‘Bad Shabbos’ Review: An Interfaith Couple Survive a Sabbath Meal They Will Never Forget

Set in the well-heeled part of New York’s Upper West Side Jewish community, Tribeca Festival audience award winner “Bad Shabbos” is an entertaining, fast-paced comedy about a Sabbath dinner gone terribly awry. After four previous indie features, director Daniel Robbins should score wider distribution with this tender look at several generations of modern Jews trying to balance the polarities of secular and religious lives, along with the dilemma of a dead body in the bathroom. Robbins and his longtime co-writer Zack Weiner up the comedy ante by stirring in several dysfunctional family dramas, an inter-faith culture clash and an intrepid doorman. A strong ensemble cast nails the tasty dialogue and increasingly frantic action without falling into shtick.

David (Jon Bass) and his fiancée Meg (Meghan Leathers), a shiksa already deep into conversion class, are headed for another Friday Sabbath dinner at the home of his parents, Richard (David Paymer) and Ellen (Kyra Sedgwick). But tonight is different from all other nights because Meg’s Catholic parents from Wisconsin, John (John Bedford Lloyd) and Beth (Catherine Curtin), are due for a first meeting with his family. “Are they good with Shabbat?” David asks anxiously. “They know to expect some prayers and to keep their phones in their pockets,” retorts Meg.

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David’s well-founded anxiety isn’t just about what his future in-laws will think of his loud and argumentative parents and Sabbath customs, but also encompasses fears about added complications from the other guests. His maladjusted younger brother Adam (Theo Taplitz), who is at least one Klonopin away from serenity, does not get along with their sister Abby’s (Milana Vayntrub) philandering boyfriend Benjamin (Ashley Zukerman). Whenever the two are in the same vicinity, not-so-innocent remarks from the older man send Adam off the deep end. Meanwhile, Meg still has to deal with hostility from the controlling Ellen, who thinks a convert just isn’t good enough and isn’t shy about letting Meg know.

With the Wisconsinites running late, things in Richard and Ellen’s beautifully furnished flat go south rather rapidly when one of the guests has a fatal accident in the powder room. As the Gelfand clan variously freak out and ponder what to do next, valiant doorman Jordan (an endearing turn by the WuTang Clan’s Cliff “Method Man” Smith) comes to the rescue with a plan. But the midwestern guests of honor arrive just at the wrong moment.

Robbins proves himself a dab hand at directing physical comedy as tension and bad behavior escalate around the dining table. Once again, Jordan comes to the rescue, albeit in disguise. “Ever hear of Ethopian Jews?” he asks John and Beth. As Meg proves herself to be not only a cool head during a crisis, but a great interpreter of the Torah, she starts to win Ellen over, but further twists are yet to come.

Grounded in its Upper West Side location, including a glimpse of Zabar’s and a stop at Barney Greengrass, the sturgeon king, the film benefits from Robbins and Weiner’s knowledge of and affection for their milieu. A minimal but aptly used jazzy score by Eli Keszler and on-screen titles indicating how soon the next doorman (a stern Alok Tewari) will come on shift, ups the comic tension.

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