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Meet the Stuckmans: Gefilte Fish Out of Water

April 20, 2006 By:
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It takes a Litvak: Director Salvador Litvak answers "When Do We Eat?" and comes up with Friday.
The Stuckman seder is the last supper you'd want to be invited to.

If you thought the Da Vinci code was a puzzler, da Stuckmans' is no better, as this inscrutable screwball family tries to decipher the holiday's meaning while its Passover passes off as a scene from "Sex and the Seder."

"When Do We Eat?" is just one of four questions asked by filmmaker Salvador Litvak, director/producer and, with his wife, Nina Davidovich, co-writer of this gefilte fish out of water comedy in which Elijah - if he dared show up at the Stuckmans' home at all - would have the seat yanked out from under him just as he was about to sit down.

Just when you thought you were out of the matzah business, they keep dragging you back in: The film opens in the area post-holiday - Friday, April 21.

A plague upon their house?

How about tsuris run rampant! The Stuckmans are stuck in a series of embarrassing escapades that derail "the world's faster Passover seder" of any significance. Why is this night deteriorating more than any other? It involves - in what may be filmdom's less than finest moment - a Chasid seduction scene; a son with autism; incest among the incense; a one-eyed Moshe Dayan look-a-like who only has eyes for the Mrs. of this misguided household; a Holocaust survivor who's the family's godfather of gefilte fish; and a daughter whose profession as a sexual surrogate is as climactic a plot point as they come.

Pharaoh's revenge? Take a seat at this table and watch the matzah crumble. But will all this sit well with audiences?

Well, they'll either love it or hate it, says the director - much like a mythical Bubbie's cement-stapled matzah balls. "Some audiences say it's too religious, others say it's sacrilegious. How can one movie be both?"

'Lighten Up, People!'
Okay, Litvak, you've used up one of your four questions. And there is much to answer for. The only thing missing is a soundtrack featuring "Matzah, Matzah Man," by the Village People as they convert en masse.

"This is unblinking about addressing religion," states this Harvard grad of the hasty pudding of a mess that is the Stuckmans. "This is about a Jewish family at a Jewish holiday behaving badly."

So, it finally happened; the Fiddler fell off his roof - and landed smack in the cleavage of the sexy Stuckman cousin in lust with the Lubavitch of the family.

For those who tsk-tsk Litvak's intentions, wagging their finger at him, he tsks-tsks right back using a different finger: "Of course they're behaving badly - it's a comedy! Lighten up, people!"

Just not in a Chanukah sense. As for the Chasid-chasing hussy - that interpretation comes from reading the script right to left; he actually pursues her - it's all about when bad things happen to good Orthodox.

"We don't play it as a good thing," states the director of the Chasid-gone-crazy. "We show that by his evil act, he has gone to a holy place, through facing his shame."

Shame that the father figure is more ramrod than Ramses. Take that stick and shove it? "It tickled us to have this tyrannical dad" portrayed as such a philistine. Sure, his beautiful home is ornamental to his life - that's what he manufactures, Christmas ornaments - but he's been St. Nicked to an inch of his life from enjoying what he has.

Pass the hard-boiled egg and egg him on with hallucinogens? Man, oh, man - that's not Manischewitz he's been drinking! More like a spiked concoction to wreak havoc with his spatial perceptions. Look, Ma, Dad's going da-da-yahoo drugged out on Ecstasy.

This is not a family you'd want to be stuck in the desert with - Las Vegas or the Sinai - for 40 minutes, let alone 40 years. Like chopped carp, "Where Do We Eat?" may beg the question: Is it tasteless?

But, for some, it may provide a post-Pesach perspective without need for carping. "Everything Jewish is about the community," according to the filmmaker. "We are a tribal people."

But the tribe has not so much spoken as spit out its intents here, and Litvak lays it on without the tefillin - albeit, still with a sense of history. The holiday, observed by the extended Stuckman family of 11 in an outdoor tent, is the tentpole for these jaded Jews to extrapolate themselves from a jejune existence.

"They're all flawed, and by the end of the night, they redeem themselves," says Litvak.

And so has the director, who found his own film career on fade out mode just as he was fading into it. After stumbling up against roadblocks - it seemed that every movie he wanted to make was thought up first by someone called Spielberg - he's finally won the duel.

"I beat him to this!" Litvak declares with a laugh, savoring a tongue-in-cheek victory.

And if his "E.T." calls home more as an "Extra on the Tsimmes," as with any good Jewish meal, the natural question to ask is … what more can be stuffed into the plot before Grandpop has to unbuckle his Borscht Belt?

Well, there's also a gay and not-so carefree aspect to "When Do We Eat?": Charoses of the lovers afflicts another couple in this movie - an interracial gay twosome whose mutual fund of interest ultimately leads to a gospel geshrei near film's end that gives double meaning to "Let my people go!"

If it all doesn't go with the flow, maybe it's because Litvak has learned that stepping into the sands of time requires going against the grain.

"I grew up feeling the outsider," says the child of Chilean parents who arrived in New York with their son when he was 5.

Years later, this self-described "Jewtino" juiced his film-school application/treatment with elements of what it was like to chill out as a Jewish Chilean-American, landing the Latino a coveted spot at UCLA film school after he'd already graduated from New York University Law School.

The only thing missing from his résumé is med school.

"Well," he admits sheepishly, "that's what I was studying originally."

But Litvak wanted to be true to himself, and not to some Hippocratic oaf he knew he could become. "My parents are still getting over it," he chuckles of his not taking the prescribed medical path.

That prescription pad gave way to finding a home in Hollywood. But, then, isn't that what "When Do We Eat?" is all about? "It's about the pharaoh within us all, about how we are enslaved today - and how to liberate that inner pharaoh."

Fair enough. As for what follows a Passover comedy? A drama on Shemini Atzeret?

No, he replies, "my next is a spiritual comedy with religious underpinnings, although not overtly Jewish."

And then there's the documentary he's currently working on about the battle between intelligent design and evolution.

Okay, interview over. When do we eat?

How about now? Pass the popcorn, Salvador - it's okay, the holiday's over.

But for Litvak, it may just be beginning.

• • •

Elijah may not have shown up for Gwyneth Paltrow's seder - not that she had one - but Moses sure did.

The actress and her rocker husband Chris Martin gave birth to a son, Moses, delivering just as the reel Moses delivered the Ten Commandments on ABC's new mini-series.

The kid must be thanking God for one small favor.

He didn't come earlier, say, at Purim: "Here, little Haman, have a hamantashen."

Why not? The Apple's already been taken.

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