Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sixty Six

It's 1966 and Bernie Reubens is about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. When he's not being teased or bullied, Bernie is perpetually neglected and ignored. But he believes his Bar Mitzvah will be the turning point that changes everything! Unfortunately, a confluence of events conspires to derail Bernie's big moment--family money problems, a house fire, his father's precariously mental and physical health and, most of all, the World Cup Soccer Finals.

Although my knowledge of soccer doesn't extend past Bend it like Beckham, I was still surprised to learn that England had never even made the World Cup quarter-finals prior to 1966. And so their entry into the finals and win over West Germany for the first and, so far, only time in history was a big deal. Footage from the 1966 World Cup matches is colorized and edited into story of Bernie's Bar Mitzvah giving the film its historic grounding as well as the juxtaposition of the two underdog stories.

Sixty Six was based on the experience of director Paul Weiland, who actually did have his Bar Mitzvah ruined by the coincidence of the World Cup Finals. Writing team Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor were hired to take Weiland's story and turn it into a script. And somewhere along the way with all the quirky characters and obstacle-course strewn path to the inevitable finale, that story got lost. On one hand, Sixty Six is a classic coming of age tale. On the other hand, it also focuses quite a bit on the character of Manny, Bernie's neurotic OCD-ridden Dad. And then there's the English soccer team--a perfect metaphor for Bernie's own underdog status. The film can't seem to decide if it's the coming of age story of Bernie Reubens, a story of father-son reunion and acceptance or a paean to the ultimate success of those overcoming the odds. As such, it's a bit unfocused and uneven.

The filmmakers focus so much on Manny and his journey, that the story of the neglected Bernie ends up being--ignored. Newcomer Gregg Sulkin does a winning job as the beleaguered thirteen year old, but we've all seen this character before. The film opens with a scene of Bernie being left behind as the family heads home from a vacation in Brighton. Hmmm--where have I seen that before? Home Alone, Little Miss Sunshine, to name a few movies with comic scenes of abandoned children. Bernie has an older brother who torments him ala Hal Hefner in Rocket Science or Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years. He's a geeky kid with few friends just like Napoleon Dynamite. Even the coming of age celebration theme has been done in movies like Sixteen Candles or Keeping up with the Steins.

The film features understated performances by Helena Bonham Carter as Bernie's mother and Stephen Rea as his asthma doctor--but both are woefully under utilized. I can't even begin to understand what the point of Stephen Rea's character was in this movie. Still, it's always a good thing to see him in a film--I've loved him ever since The Crying Game! Eddie Marsan (most recently seen in Hancock) does a nice job of playing Bernie's eccentric Dad--although he seems to be channeling Chico Marx appearance-wise, albeit not personality-wise. It's Marsan's Manny that helps Bernie experience the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, culminating in the film's oddly affecting finale. I wish the parallel between Manny and Bernie had been better structured throughout the film in order to have made the pay-off of that moment even bigger.

In the end, Sixty Six is still a mildly amusing, innocuously charming indie family film. Not quite Little Miss Sunshine in the way of laughs and poignancy, but by far a more sweetly entertaining story of hopeful young misfit than Napoleon Dynamite. It's rated PG-13 (although for the life of me I can't figure out why...It says for "some sexual content and brief nudity." Damn, I missed that!) and will open in New York City on August 1st and expand nationwide throughout August. If you're nostalgic for a simpler time, Sixty Six might be your ticket...

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