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‘Between the Temples’ Review: Jason Schwartzman and Carol Kane Make a Poignant Match in Nathan Silver’s Offbeat Jewish Comedy

In a grimy, awkward world that painfully resembles our own, Ben Gottlieb (Jason Schwartzman) isn’t coping very well. His wife passed away and he’s living back at home with his two overbearing mothers in upstate New York, isolated from the energy of the city. He’s a cantor at the local temple, but he can’t sing anymore. While he keeps kosher and remains devout, Ben struggles to feel the same connection to his faith that he once had. Ben isn’t really connecting to anything these days, not even his own body. He’s schlubby, unshaven with blemishes on his face, plodding through life in a depressed daze. It’s like he’s completely given up. In one early scene, he lays out in the middle of the road beckoning for a truck to run him over.

Then he has a chance encounter with his childhood music teacher, Carla Kessler (Carol Kane), at a bar and her presence is like a shock to the system. She’s honest, speaks her mind and has a lust for life that rivals women half her age. Soon, she becomes Ben’s unlikely bat mitzvah student and friend, and Ben becomes determined to spend as much time as possible teaching her.

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But it’s not just about giving Carla the bat mitzvah she always wanted: Ben is smitten with her. Together they’re an odd couple with a connection that confounds everyone around them. But that’s what makes it beautiful: It’s refreshing and unexpected. Carla challenges Ben to be present, teaching him to be a more active listener. And Ben teaches Carla all about Judaism, slowly reigniting his faith.

Things get complicated when the rabbi (Robert Smigel) introduces Ben to his daughter, Gabby (Madeline Weinstein), with the hope of a love connection. His pushy realtor mother, Judith (Dolly De Leon), encourages the setup, inviting her over and pressuring Ben to spend time with her. His other mother, Meira (Caroline Aaron), doesn’t apply as much pressure, but she clearly wants Ben to give love another try. And what could be a better match than the rabbi’s daughter? She’s pretty and young — resembling his dead wife, Ruth — but that’s not what Ben wants anymore. Ruth was a sexy, confident novelist with an erotic mind and a drinking problem. He only mentions this in passing, as if the love they had died with her. What’s left is a childlike man, hoping for a different — perhaps more gentle — kind of love with Carla.

But she’s old enough to be his mother, and she already has a son of her own (Matthew Shear), who doesn’t approve of their tender-yet-chaste relationship. And he’s not the only one who finds their connection strange. Their relationship has echoes of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, with Kane stepping effortlessly into the Ruth Gordon role. It’s lovely to see Kane front and center on the big screen again, flexing her legendary comedy chops. There’s a certain ethereal energy to her presence — she’s charming, confounding and hilarious with a unique voice.

Between the Temples could be read as a thematic companion to Beau Is Afraid, examining the relationship between Jewish mothers and their sons as well as the masculine self-loathing that’s been the cornerstone of Jewish comedy and film. Ben is just as afraid as Beau — afraid of letting his mothers down, afraid of not being a good enough Jew and, most pointedly, afraid that love and happiness isn’t a real option for him. Carla is his lifeline: part mother figure, part lover, and an attentive student. In an emotionally chaotic world, the two ground each other.

Schwartzman has been a lead before, but never quite like this. Here, he’s like a Jewish Steve Carell, throwing his body fully into the comedy with no social graces. Ben is an awkward man who can’t help but be the center of attention, unable to mask any of his emotions. It’s a far cry from Schwartzman’s more well-groomed, petulantly handsome, artsy characters in Wes Anderson films. In one memorable scene, Ben watches a video from his own bar mitzvah and hallucinates an interaction with his young self. The beautiful weirdness of that scene transforms the film and his performance into something deeply, gorgeously strange.

Between the Temples has director Nathan Silver (Thirst Street) in a different mode. Maintaining his acidic sense of humor, he’s penned a screenplay that is surprisingly optimistic. This is a world where embarrassment waits around every corner and everyone is talking over each other. But in the scenes with just Schwartzman and Kane, there’s a sweetness that feels new. Unlike his previous film, Stinking Heaven, Between the Temples is a story that believes in a utopia, even if it’s just two people enjoying each other’s company. Where the story lands is surprisingly poignant, cementing Ben and Carla’s faith in Judaism and each other.

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