From now through May 28, the Washington Jewish Film Festival celebrates its 27th annual iteration, with dozens of films from around the world. Our film critics viewed a small sampling of the films being shown this year. For more information about the festival and to purchase tickets, click here. Check back for more in the coming days.
The comedy of Jerry Lewis feels terribly out of place today. There is no veneer of irony or insights into the human condition. Just a lot of funny faces and pratfalls. Then again, Lewis wasn’t taken seriously even in his time, an injustice that The Man Behind the Clown intends to correct. Through old clips and new interviews with luminaries like Martin Scorsese and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the documentary builds a case that Lewis deserves to be considered a serious artist. If you’re not a fan of his comedy, The Man Behind the Clown is unlikely to change that, but it might make you appreciate what Lewis reveals about the country that produced him. “Americans love Jerry Lewis,” says Rosenbaum, “and don’t want to admit it.” We can disagree on the first part, but the gulf between his immense popularity and the dismissive critical attitude is worth exploring. At a scant 60 minutes, The Man Behind the Clown never gets totally under his skin, but it uncovers new layers of a man who, as he has aged, is remembered more for his prickly disposition than his remarkable body of work. —Noah Gittell
Thurs., May 25, 6:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema; Sat., May 27, 11 a.m., AFI Silver Theatre & Cultural Center.
The Guys Next Door
The Guys Next Door isn’t so much a Jewish movie as it is a documentary about gay dads. Husbands Erik and Sandro form a partnership with Erik’s friend from college, the heterosexual and married-with-kids Rachel. Their deal? Having Rachel be a surrogate for their two children. Rachel, who is Jewish, claims not to form an attachment to the babies she carries, happy to serve as merely the oven for the couple’s buns. Besides the obvious theme of the modern variations of what is considered “family,” there’s a somewhat surprising subtopic: homophobia, with certain circumstances triggering in Erik and Sandro memories of being in the closet. These shadowy moments flit by quickly, however—more so than a seemingly tangential trip to Italy to visit Sandro’s relatives and friends—leaving you with the warmth of all the love overflowing from this alternatively extended clan. —Tricia Olszewski
Sun., May 21, 6 p.m., Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema; Mon., May 22, 6:15 p.m., Landmark’s E Street Cinema.
Body and Soul: An American Bridge
“Polarity is very good in art,” says a commenter in Body and Soul: An American Bridge. And that, in essence, is why the first part of the documentary’s title is less important than its second. The “American bridge” it refers to is the musical relationship between African-American and Jewish cultures, with the song “Body and Soul” embodying one of the most enduring such artistic borrows. Written by the Jewish composer Johnny Green, its composition lent itself to the blues and to jazz, with over 3,000 covers known today. (It was Amy Winehouse’s final recording, for example, a duet with Tony Bennett.) After fixating on that tune, the doc shifts its focus to artists, such as entertainers who performed in blackface and, more prominently, Louis Armstrong. At this point, however, the film starts to feel a bit condescending, with someone commenting that Armstrong “came to love Jewish food” and an excerpt from his unpublished biography reading, “I always enjoyed everything [the Jews] sang, and still do.” The bridge is reinstated with a segment on the Benny Goodman Trio—the first integrated band—but the doc ultimately feels not so much like a story about influence and collaboration than stories of two “them”s. —Tricia Olszewski
Sat., May 20, 4:30 p.m., Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema; Sun., May 21, 12 p.m., Edlavitch DCJCC.