The customary response to an inexplicably loopy French comedy is to shrug and say, "Well, it's French all right." And in the best of cases - "Amelie," "Heartbreaker," "Delicatessen," "The Intouchables" - laugh at the distinctly French sense of humor.
That approach won't work with "Let My People Go!" This film can't be pinned down to the French alone; you'd have to also include the Jews, the homosexuals and the Finnish in finding the source of the offbeat humor on display here.
"Let My People Go!" the first feature by French writer-director Mikael Buch, follows Reuben Steiner, a take-off on the nebbishy, early-day Woody Allen characters - if Allen were French (as he seems to wish) and gay. From the outset, we are taken out of the everyday world: the film opens in a fairy tale-like Finnish village, where Reuben (Nicolas Maury), a postman, is bringing a package to an older neighbor. The man refuses delivery, says it's not his, Reuben can keep it. Reuben insists he take it and in the confrontation, the man collapses on his lawn. Reuben reluctantly takes ownership of the package, containing exactly 199,980 euros. His handsome lover Teemu (Jaarko Niemi) doesn't believe the story; the two split and Reuben heads to Paris to think things through surrounded by his comforting, supportive Jewish family.
Oy, such a mistake! Reuben's mother, Rachel (Carmen Maura) simply won't acknowledge her son's homosexuality. His elusive father insists on telling Reuben about his mistress, and insists on doing so while clobbering his son in a tennis match. An uncle eagerly wants Reuben to join him in the family dry-cleaning business. Reuben's brother is violent and particularly easy to provoke in matters regarding Reuben. A brother-in-law is anti-Semitic. An elderly family acquaintance, commonly known as the Lawyer Goldberg, is hot for Reuben's body.
On top of it all, Passover is approaching, and the preparations push the family even closer together. Reuben, at the center of this farcical, fast-moving mishegas, wants only to be left in his yearning for Teemu.
The Passover service has its four questions; "Let My People Go!" has at least as many mysteries. Some are inspired flights of humor; the fantasy sequence about Shalom spray, an aerosol that instantly turns a person more Jewish in thought and appearance, is a hilarious update on old Borscht Belt comedy. The character of Goldberg, a pillar of the Parisian Jewish community with disarmingly inappropriate sexual manners, is impossible to pin down. A scene at the apartment of Reuben's brother-in-law introduces a Keystone Cops element; Reuben, along with his father and brother, end up in jail for the night.
"Let My People Go!" is built on a foundation of sweetness and smarts, and the stereotypes, the kitsch and the mania play well. And in the heartwarming conclusion, Reuben would rather have his family and loved ones, with all their Jewishness, Frenchness, Finnishness and gayness, than not.