In a state of arrested development after his wife unexpectedly died from a freak accident, Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman) is suicidal, pleading to a truck to just run him over and begging that he be fired from his job as cantor at the local Jewish temple in upstate New York. While this set-up may not scream comedy, Between the Temples is in fact hilarious, packed with endless jokes and adoration for physical gags while we witness Ben find new meaning in life through an unexpected acquaintance. Above all, Nathan Silver’s feature, from a script he co-wrote with C. Mason Wells, is a thrillingly alive, nimble piece of filmmaking: shot on 16mm by Sean Price Williams with faces of its ensemble guiding every movement, and edited by John Magary with a frenetic yet defined rhythm, Between the Temples is a witty, biting portrait of finding one’s footing in both faith and friendship. 

Just when Ben has hit rock bottom, losing his ability to sing as a cantor in the temple and ready to end it all, a beacon of light appears: his former music teacher Carla (Carol Kane), a widow of some time who has decided to embark on the 13-month journey of preparing for her long-delayed bat mitzvah, an event she wasn’t allowed to have as a kid due to her communist parents being ostracized from the community. Shifting his focus to Carla and away from his dozen-or-so prepubescent students, Ben starts understanding why life is worth living. A sentimental, feel-good Sundance dramedy of unexpected, mismatched friendship this is not, thankfully, as Silver unearths the eccentricities and unflattering nature of his characters, making them all the more human––ultimately more captivating to watch.

This enthralling spectrum of humanity is perhaps best exemplified when Ben and Carla grab burgers at the latter’s favorite spot after a lesson. As Silver amplifies the sound design of them fanatically masticating their delicious meal, their mouths filling the full frame, they trade stories about how their spouses died, only to have Ben spit out the food when he realizes the burger isn’t kosher. This delicate melding of pleasure and death is a continuous theme throughout, reaching its apex in a rousing scene where Gabby (Madeline Weinstein), the visiting daughter of Ben’s Rabbi Bruce (Robert Smigel) and someone more age-appropriate for a relationship, is infatuated with Ben and seeks to fulfill his sexual desires in a deviant, kinky way. Yet matters of the heart don’t lie and––with Schwartzman and Kane delivering some of the best performances of their accomplished careers––Ben’s true connection is shown to be with Carla.

Packing on a few pounds to display his character’s regression during a year teeming with tragedy, Schwartzman’s Ben deftly balances both an overwhelming sense of loneliness and a curiosity for finding a new path in life. Even at Ben’s darkest points, Schartzman’s naturally funny demeanor shines through: he’s able to juggle the comedy amidst the pathos, dispensing hilarious lines one might only catch on a second viewing. Kane’s Carla is a perfect match in personality, steadfast and unwavering in her desire to fulfill this religious mission with perspective on life that helps weather its disappointments, from an unfulfilled music career to a strained relationship with her demandingly inquisitive psychotherapist son (Matthew Shear). The viewer never fully predicts how a character may react; Silver’s improv-focused process breathes an anxious energy into every moment. This filmmaking vigor also includes an affectation for gags, from a restaurant having the biggest menus of all time to Ben’s broken basement bedroom door having the loudest, most annoying sound every time he tries to close it, to have some privacy from his parents (Caroline Aaron and Dolly de Leon, their characters wonderfully overbearing in their desire to see him find a new romantic pursuit).

With the use of grainy 16mm, incorporating iris and split-diopters shots, Williams’ cinematography lends a personality as strong as these leads, exuding the feel of a gritty 1970s character study even more than the likes of Alexander Payne’s latest. This attention to character is the lifeblood of Between the Temples, culminating in a spectacular, extended climax where they all converge over a Shabbat dinner whereat all unspoken feelings are divulged in a gloriously messy fashion. A screwball comedy that never forgets a dramatic weight, Silver’s latest feature is a hilarious, touching, and acerbic tale of picking one’s self back up and not being afraid to pursue what is truly desired.

Between the Temples premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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