Movie Review: 13: The Musical

With the news last week that Adam Sandler is in Toronto filming YOU ARE SO NOT INVITED TO MY BAT MITZVAH!, it would seem that Hollywood has re-embraced the Jewish rite of passage. Last year we had DONNY’S BAR MITZVAH, which went straight to the streaming services (I haven’t seen it yet), and most recently was had CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH. Even IT CHAPTER TWO had a bar mitzvah scene. My favourite bar mitzvah scene, though, has to be the one from THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ from 1974. That scene influenced my short-lived “career” as the videographer of our community’s circumcisions.

But back to the present, Netflix has decided to drink the Manischewitz with its release of 13: THE MUSICAL. Based on the 2008 Broadway production that few people saw – and for very good reason – the story follows nearly 13-year-old Evan Goldman (Eli Golden) as he moves from New York City’s Upper West Side with his newly-divorced mother, Jessica (an unrecognizable Debra Messing, TV’s WILL & GRACE), to Walkerton, Indiana, where her mother, Ruth (Rhea Perlman, TV’s CHEERS), still lives. Not surprisingly, Evan is completely bummed out by having his life uprooted so close to his bar mitzvah, but he’s determined to make new friends so that he can invite them all to his party, which he has offered to plan. (Yeah, as if any Jewish mother would let their child plan their own bar mitzvah party!) No sooner does he unpack his one suitcase (I assume the rest of their belongings will arrive sometime later) than he meets and bonds with his new next door neighbour, Patrice, a pudgy and dorky kid who has a passion for saving the planet. That friendship hits the rocks, though, when he falls in with the school’s cool kids, which includes Brett, the kind but clueless jock; Kendra, the darling whom everyone loves; and Lucy, the scheming head cheerleader. Trying to please everyone, Evan soon finds that he’s not pleasing anyone and his party looks like it’s going to be a complete failure.

Oy vey. There is so much that’s wrong with this “High School Jew-sical”, beginning with the lame ethnic humour like the rabbi (played by Josh Peck, TV’s HOW I MET YOUR FATHER) saying “Chai 5″. (“Chai” is Hebrew for “life”.) When I was being bar mitzvahed (a millennium ago), my rabbi used to comment, far too often I might add, that many parents and kids were focussing too much on the bar (i.e., the party) rather than the mitzvah (the commandment or good deed). This story takes that notion to the extreme as Evan not only spends as little time as possible studying his bar mitzvah portion, which turns out to be just one line of scripture (an impossible scenario, by the way), he even co-opts Patrice’s plastic reduction initiative for his “mitzvah project”. What a little shit! Then there’s the matter that Evan, Jessica and Ruth are the town’s only Jews. I can accept that that might happen in real life but I can also guarantee that if it did happen in Walkerton, the family wouldn’t hold their bar mitzvah in a church no matter how liberal their Judaism may be. They would instead drive 30 minutes to South Bend where there are seven synagogues to choose from. There’s also the matter of Evan’s father, Joel (Peter Hermann, TV’s SVU). Even though he’s divorced from Jessica, it’s still menschy (Yiddish-English for “decent”) of him to be at son’s most important day as a Jew but what about his parents or the rest of his family? Where are they? The last thing I’ll kvetch (complain) about is the kipah (head covering) that Ruth gives to Evan. She tells him that it was her late husband’s first kipah and he shouldn’t mind the smell. Leaving aside that it looks brand new, ewww! I can tell you that I have about 30 kipot (kipahs) in my home, in a multitude of colours and patterns, and I would never gift one to someone without washing it first. That includes the once brand new kipah my parents gave me for my bar mitzvah, which is currently sitting in a storage box. While passing down a religious item from one generation to the next is something we do, it’s not the kipah that typically gets passed down to the bar mitzvah boy. It’s the tallit (prayer shawl) because it represents their transition to manhood. Ruth’s husband surely had one so where is it? I can imagine that all these inaccuracies are in Dan Elish’s original book but, as a director, Tamra David is allowed to change, or “reinterpret”, them. She made sure to cast Jewish actors (except for Hermann, although he has played Jewish characters a few times before on screen) in all the Jewish roles so why not put as much attention into the story’s Jewish details?

As for the production, here David scores much higher. The film ticks all the inclusion and tolerance boxes so don’t be surprised for thinking this should have been a Nickelodeon film. It sort of was. The project started out at CBS Films which, like Nickelodeon, is owned by Paramount, but when that company shut down in 2019, Netflix then took it over. But for a town of just 2,300, this is one incredibly diverse school! In addition to the Jew and the dorky kid with glasses who you know will grow up to be the hot college graduate with a degree in environmental science, there are the Black kids, the Korean and Chinese kids, the obese Muslim kid, a few token blond-haired White kids, one boy who is confined to a wheelchair, and the gender-fluid kid who is a whiz on the piano. The teenaged cast, most of whom are making their film debuts here, is impressive especially during the highly choreographed and colourful dance numbers. I would imagine that getting a dozen teenagers to move in unison would be as challenging as herding a dozen kittens. The songs, unfortunately, are rather unmemorable and, for the most part, anachronistic, seemingly better suited for a reboot of GREASE or HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. The closing number, however, is completely on point. I believe Ariana Grande was the one who led the singing in this number in the Broadway production as it’s right up her alley.

I’m clearly not in this film’s target demographic but I have to wonder if the TikTok generation would find it any more enjoyable. I’m going to have to guess that the answer to that is “Yes, but barely.”

13: THE MUSICAL is streaming now on Netflix. If this is how being 13 and Jewish looks in 2022, I’m glad I’m not 13 anymore.

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