Warning beeps greet the audience at the very start of “Kiss Me Kosher.” They come from the burglar alarm for Shira’s bar, “The Real Jewish Princess,” though there doesn’t seem to be anyone there. Shira (Moran Rosenblatt), named the bar for her beloved but cantankerous grandmother Berta (Rivka Michaeli), a Holocaust survivor whose painting hangs at the bar and whose financial investment underwrites the whole enterprise. Beginning the movie with both warning and malfunction foreshadows much of what is to come between Shira and Berta.
Shira is about to move into an apartment with her German girlfriend, Maria. In the first five minutes of the movie, Shira arrives at the apartment late, Maria bumps into one of Shira’s previous girlfriends (“is there a girl in Israel you didn’t f—k?”). In the ensuing fracas, Maria accidentally proposes to Shira. And, with that, we’re launched into a lesbian romcom where love has to overcome waves of Holocaust memory, facilitate a side of heterosexual Israeli-Palestinian romance and deal with issues of conversion, Israeli politics and intrusive younger siblings.
As any bar owner can tell you, though, you need more than just the perfect ingredients to make your bar work. You need more than just the right drinks, the right location, the right clientele and the right employees. You also need a certain spark to make yours the bar that’s really happening.
So though this could have been a delightful tramp through a farcical minefield of sexuality, geopolitics and history it ends up awkward and overstuffed. “Kiss Me” isn’t going for actual laughs, and it is too crammed full of incident and gimmicks to be charming. Nothing has any room to happen. The plot doesn’t unfold so much as one event cedes to the next. Indeed, most scenes end up with Rosenblatt desperately and repeatedly turning off alarm bells — either actual ones at her bar or figurative ones in the central romance.
This is the first feature-length film from the Germany-based Israeli writer, director Shirel Peleg and it shows. It has many good ideas that, together, don’t land. Rosenblatt — who has shown her versatility in “Lipstikka,” “Red Cow” and “Fauda” — is well-cast, but she’s too busy rushing around to properly establish the emotional connections upon which the movie rests. Without convincing the audience that she loves them both, the film can’t build a central dramatic conflict where Shira has to choose between her German girlfriend and her Holocaust-surviving grandmother.
Another idea that doesn’t quite work out is Shira’s little brother Liam filming events for a high school project. The payoff is twofold yet minimal — Shira sees a montage of film reminding her she loves Maria and the audience has the constant, and exhausting, opportunity to be told things in response to Liam’s questions rather than shown things.
The working title of this project was “Kiss Me Before It Blows Up.” There’s a pun in there about relationships ending badly and terrorist attacks. “Kiss Me Kosher” is a blander title but, unfortunately, one that more accurately reflects the tone of a movie that never really threatens to blow up. The conventions of the romantic comedy genre are deliberately flattened in order to make them accessible, but beyond the anti-Arab fantasies of Shira’s Israeli settler dad (John Carroll Lynch, who played Norm Gunderson in the 1996 movie, “Fargo”) there’s no danger of the bar, the relationship, the family or the country blowing up.
This isa German-American production, with a lot of English and some German dialogue as well as the Hebrew. The intended German audience could explain why the film feels awry in America. Peleg may be so used to explaining things to progressive non-Jewish Germans that it’s second nature to do so. For this audience, Maria and her mother are crucial characters. To provide a simplistic introduction to Middle Eastern politics, Shira’s family voices a variety of stereotypical positions in front of Maria. To explain the Shoah, Peleg shows Maria’s mother having a rapid and intense education in Holocaust history from the Jewish side.
Maria’s main hope is to be treated like a human individual with agency, not as a representative of Germany or as a “shiksa.” Throughout the film she learns how her individual agency is maintained in tension with the collectives she belongs to — Germans, non-Jews, lesbians — not separate from them. However, just like basic Israeli politics, there is little need to explain to American Jewish audiences that communal identity is rarely fungible.
“Kiss Me Kosher” is playing at the Israel Film Center Festival from June 15-29 (streaming from 10 a.m. to 11.45 p.m. in NY, NJ and CT).
On Thursday, June 24, the Festival will be hosting a Q&A with “Kiss Me Kosher” director Shirel Peleg at 1 p.m. EDT