The Reubens family — facing the bar mitzva vs. the big game struggle
March 27, 2008
Poor Bernie Reubens. At school, he’s the last one chosen for sports. His big brother picks on him mercilessly. And his father is an odd duck who embarrasses him no end. So Bernie sees his impending bar mitzva as his day in the sun, the one moment when he will be the deserved center of attention, laden with affection and gifts. His enthusiasm is boundless, and he plans every detail of what he expects will be an extravaganza: the “Jesus Christ of bar mitzvas,” as he puts it.
But Bernie, you may not be surprised to learn in Sixty-Six, is hapless. The London grocery that his father jointly owns with his uncle Jimmy suddenly faces new competition from a shiny supermarket, just two doors down. And if you think that would make money a bit tight, well, the brief fire that chars the attic only makes things worse. That’s because his father, Manny, kept a good deal of his savings in a box under a floor board. Up in smoke, as they say.
Such despair makes for a poignant scene in which the Reubens family visits an Irish lodge as a possible venue for the bar mitzva party. His older brother may have celebrated in a fancy-shmancy catering hall, but Bernie will just have to settle for less.
The really serious problem facing Bernie, however, is the World Cup. You see his big day in synagogue is scheduled for the same day that the final match is to be played — July 30, 1966. Why Bernie’s parents don’t take this seriously (this is England, after all) and simply change the date is beyond this reviewer. Instead, Bernie’s mom, played with flair by Helena Bonham Carter, exudes a sort of Jewish version of the stiff upper lip and pooh-poohs the notion that anyone would miss her Bernie’s bar mitzva for a game. Little does she know.
And so Bernie, who is portrayed exquisitely by Gregg Sulkin, is now on edge for several weeks leading up to the day when he will become a man. The anxiety gives Bernie asthma attacks and turns him into an aspiring soothsayer; at one point, he actually casts a spell against the rather ordinary English team in hopes they will finally lose, instead of surprising an entire country with victory after victory. Alas, Bernie has the wrong potion. But you knew his sorcery was for naught, didn’t you?
What makes this film so charming, however, is that you can’t help but root for Bernie. You want the supermarket to fail. You feel the utter helplessness reflected on his father’s face when he returns home to fire trucks in front of the house. And you hope beyond hope that the English team will suddenly become clumsy oafs on the field. Bernie may seem like a loser, but you want him to become a winner. He represents the hidden part in each of us that may feel betrayed or downtrodden but is willing to persevere simply because we know we must. And because we believe in ourselves.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring film. The storyline is straightforward but resonates deeply. The acting is wonderful. Eddie Marsan is particularly superb as the eccentric and inscrutable Manny. And the directing is just right; as in life off the screen, the Reubens family experiences just the right balance of comical and pleasurable moments to ease the frustrations and setbacks and weariness that the world throws at them. Sixty-six will make you laugh, sigh, shake your head, and even cheer. In a way, this tale is a coming of age experience for everyone, and one that won’t easily be forgotten.
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