Dubbed the Yiddish Mark Twain, satirist Sholem Aleichem (pronounced: Shoh-lemm-Alec-umm) comes alive in Laughing in the Darkness. Most notorious for laying down the primer to the Broadway musical smash hit "Fiddler on the Roof" the brain behind the milkman and many other notable characters broke ground on a genre of literature that has reached audiences far beyond his Jewish ilk. Modish visual effects that do away with the same old dissolves and zooms, along with book-in-the-nose research, turns this film's talking heads into powerful vehicles channeling the writer's oddball DNA. Unlike the personified herring in the film, the cash take from arthouse theaters won't fill buckets. But don't let the tongue-tying title deter you: this doc's a grabber.
Filmmaker Joseph Dorman strikes Aleichem's story with gusto. Through the cast of scholars and historians he uncovers the trenchant roots behind an artist who made something out of simple noodles of thought; and he wasn't just a joke factory. Aleichem took on tough themes: the Jews turning backs on religion, poverty, genocide—and he did it all with a rosy bent.
Breaking from the Hebrew and Russian languages, Aleichem wrote in the layperson's Yiddish. This slap at convention got the writer ostracized but critics who wrote him off as his own punch line. But the public couldn't turn away from reading his Friday night vignettes published in the town circular. Soon enough, the dandy who married into money and lost it all by trying to moonlight as a stockbroker supported a dozen kids with his prose. Aleichem invented alter egos to mirror his shortcomings and twisted purview; down-on-his-luck shysters people his stories, garrulous and incorrigible every one.
The author's texts are used as biographical inventory, and they're not simply read, they're performed, sometimes to the detriment of the prose. And the eye-swiping effects, in which photos move back and forward or zip side to side, afford a new spin on the exercise of show-and-tell in the historical doc category. Superseding the multimedia barrage are the visceral interpretations pulled from Aleichem's pithy stories.
The ripple effect of Aleichem's work is emphasized by the academics' intimate connection to his words and themes; their critical explanations are sharp and self-guided. (Credit to Joseph Dorman for doing his homework and finding his experts.) When "Fiddler" lyricist Sheldon Harnick recounts his play on the monologue "If I Were a Rothschild" (which he changed to "If I Were A Rich Man") he is secure that the move would earn the writer's blessing. "I think Sholem Aleichem would have approved." Between the one-on-ones are bushels of photos of the spectacled and whiskered writer. No shortage of vanity here. While the narrator charts the film's course, the voiceovers (SNL alum Rachel Dratch contributes) portray numerous players, and sometimes the writer himself. The uncredited actor's interpretation of Aleichem is little overbearing—he strains to mimic the Ukrainian original with New World additives. You wonder if he's binging on coffee to work off a hangover—especially when the story's interlocutor makes Yiddish insults or fancies about striking it rich.
The affection for Aleichem swells. He's a go-getting, clever wit who manages to speak about hard times through a tempered (and halfhearted) framework. The snippets of his prose leave much to crave—I don't want stoppage but couldn't we keep reading and sink into the story some more? The screen treatment on this man and his bouts of success and setback get to the heart of why we care in the first place. He's not beyond the pale, he's another bloke in the bread line who's not forgetting to crack jokes. A laugh fills any appetite.
Distributor: International Film Circuit and Riverside Films
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Joseph Dorman
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: July 8 NY