There was a time when British footballers were not the stuff of tabloid headlines and primetime soap operas. Before David Beckham there was the 1966 British national team, who would go deep into the World Cup tournament, ruining future director Paul Weiland’s Bar Mitzvah in the process. At least it provided the seed of the idea for his new film Sixty Six (trailer here), opening today in New York.
Everything that can go wrong for Bernie Rubens, Weiland’s fictional alter-ego, does go wrong. Bullied by his own brother, in treatment for asthma, and embarrassed by a father who is not eccentric, but frankly just plain off, young Bernie has invested much in his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. In his fantasies, it will be the empowering moment when everything changes and his family finally gives him the respect and attention he deserves. Unfortunately, his parents have scheduled it on the same date as the World Cup final.
Since the unheralded England team was far from favored, his parents do not take his concerns seriously. They have more pressing concerns now that a supermarket threatens to put the family green grocery out of business. Fearing his destiny depends on a loss for England, the nebbish Bernie takes a crash course in international soccer. Simultaneously, he creates unrealistic plans for his Bar Mitzvah, hopelessly raising his expectations for the event.
Sixty Six is the kind of film that the dirty word of “quirky” is sure to be applied. Indeed, the family eccentricity gets laid on pretty thick. However, there is a refreshingly positive role for religion in the film, as personified by Rabbi Linov, Bernie’s blind Bar Mitzvah teacher, who just might have some real wisdom to offer, if his student will only listen.
Weiland’s film boasts an appealing cast of character actors (for lack of a better term) with some of its best performances coming in supporting roles. Richard Katz plays the kindly Rabbi Linov without turning him into a caricature of saccharine nobility. Stephen Rea is always interesting to watch on-screen, in this case as asthma specialist Dr. Barrie, the only other adult who seems to find time for Bernie. It is also nice to see Helena Bonham Carter in a film not directed by Tim Burton, here playing Bernie’s long suffering mother. How she ended up with such a weirdo husband is explained, but never really believable.
Frankly, it would be easier to maintain a rooting interest in the Rubens family if Bernie (Gregg Sulkin) was not so milk-toast and his father (Eddie Marsan) was not such an anti-social oddball. In fact, Bernie’s Bar Mitvah can not come soon enough, because the overly earnest protagonist could use some growing-up at times. However, the film gives him an epiphany about personal responsibility that lends some meaning to the “quirky” tale, helping to redeem his sad sack character.
As unapologetically sentimental as Sixty Six gets, it does not forget the underlying religious significance of the event in question. Ultimately, that is what keeps the film from descending into sitcom territory. It opens today in New York and next Wednesday in L.A.