With "Go For Zucker," we get an ample opportunity to look at how another culture heals through laughter. It's being hyped as a German-Jewish comedy, which should tell you a few things; this is the first Jewish-centered film made in Germany since before the Second World War. So well-received was this film and its jokes about reconciliation (not only with religious history but also with the nation's former East-West divide) in its home country that it became a major hit, eventually taking home Best Film, Best Actor, and four other trophies at the German Film Awards, the Berlin equivalent of the Oscars.
How disappointing, then, to discover that so much of what was so loved has failed to translate. Most of the film relies greatly on stereotypes and other such broad humor; director/co-writer Dani Levy aims to deliver a traditionally Jewish style of comedy filtered through the modern politics, guilt, and emotion of today's Germany. Watching through American eyes, none of it seems all that funny, or interesting, or entertaining.
Henry Hübchen plays Jacky Zucker, a pool shark and brothel manager who used to have minor fame as an East German sportscaster. His life's in the gutter - his wife's thrown him out, his children despise him, and he'll wind up in prison if he doesn't pay off all his debts by Monday. Then comes the telegram: his mother has died, and there is an inheritance to be had, but, ah, only if he makes good with his estranged brother and sits shivah with his family. For, you see, Zucker is really Zuckermann, who threw away his Judaism when the wall went up and his mother and brother fled to the West. He stayed behind, enjoying the fruits of Communism.
The idea, then, is that we laugh as this scoundrel has to pretend to be a practicing Jew long enough to get mom's money, and maybe he'll find a little reconciliation along the way. This would be fine - we might even enjoy watching a ghost of East Germany struggling to survive in the new world of capitalism - if only Levy and co-writer Holger Franke had restrained themselves just a tad. As it is, the symbolism here, East and West coming together, overcoming differences, is too loud and obvious that it never works. The notion of someone happier under the old rule stuck living under the new one is quite appealing, yet all we get here are overplayed jokes and undercooked pay-offs. Levy is making a movie strictly for homegrown audiences, so the universality of such a thing goes untouched.
More problematic is its insistence on sloppy comedy and sloppier drama. As mentioned, this is intentional; Levy was aiming for a big-and-loud tone. But little of it ever works. A running gag in the picture is that Zucker keeps trying to duck out of his religious duties in order to swindle his way into a pool tournament, and he's such a wicked fellow that he's not above constantly faking heart attacks to get the job done. Now, the first fake heart attack, that's cute. Not funny, but cute. Worth a small grin. The next time, it's worth a hmmph. The next time still, it's annoying. And so on. Levy has no idea when to stop.
(Through all of this, Levy tosses in some grossly failed attempts at big laughs, including having two hospital interns be overly sexualized gay men, or having Zucker's son stutter, or having the sister-in-law be fat and ugly.)
After all the farce is out of the way, we're tossed some mediocre dramatics about the family finally learning to get along despite their differences. It's nothing you've never seen before, despite the novelty of a German-Jewish comedy. In fact, the sappiness of it all leads the picture to become pretty dull (although the weak comedy before it isn't too gripping either.)
A final thought: compounding the poor translation between cultures are two major subplots involving sexually active cousins. There's an ick factor at play, most Americans (myself included) struggling to overcome the differences in what's acceptable where. If we can't get over that hump, what chance do the regional notions have in winning us outsiders over?
The widescreen (1.85:1) image is decent enough to get by, although the lack of anamorphic enhancement is a bother.
The dialogue-heavy German stereo soundtrack sounds just fine. English subtitles are provided, although there is no option to turn them off.
Three sets of text-only extras cover an interview with Levy, a series of production notes, and a biography of the director. The interview and production notes are a bit redundant in explaining the movie's motives.
A brief photo gallery consists of stills from the film.
Finally, we get a selection of trailers for other First Run releases, plus a page on the company's history.
Unless you're craving an insider's look at the German state of mind as viewed through a mediocre movie, there's no reason to check this one out, especially when you factor in the limp disc presentation. Skip It.