Dani Levi's farce about two halves of a Jewish family--one orthodox, one decidedly secular--coming together for their mother's funeral was a huge hit last year in Germany. It is certainly heartening to see the country that perpetrated the Holocaust embracing its Jewish citizens. If the success of "Go for Zucker!" is any indication, 21st-century Germans may indeed have overcome their grandparent's anti-Semitism. But their famously lousy sense of humor is still in full effect.
Jackie Zucker (Henry Hübchen) is a former East German sportscaster turned hustler and pool shark. As the film opens, his wife (the wonderful Hannelore Elsner) kicks him out, his daughter Jana wants nothing to do with him, and his son is threatening to send him to debtor's prison. Then a telegram arrives from Frankfurt: Zucker's estranged mother has died. She wants to be buried in Berlin and Jackie's orthodox brother Samuel is coming for the funeral, along with his wife and children. As it turns out, the sizable inheritance will go to the brothers only if they can reconcile.
Jackie Zucker (Henry Hübchen) is in trouble in "Go for Zucker!"
In theory, the fish-out-of-water scenario must have looked hilarious; the down-and-out rogue who has to deal with his overzealous religious mishpochah
is a classic comedy setup. But here's the thing about German comedy: it's usually approached with the same spirit of practicality and sober engineering that makes Germans cars so coveted. When it's applied to making people laugh, the results are often wooden and calculated. And usually, there is a misguided attempt at edification, too, like the "prepare for the Jews" montage in which Jackie and his wife shop for menorahs and learn about the details of keeping kosher.
In "Go for Zucker!", the setup is milked for broad laughs: the uptight uncle takes ecstasy at the bordello, the princess daughter deflowers her insecure cousin, Jackie fakes heart attacks to get out of sitting shiva. But in reality, Levi is more concerned with serious matter. The brothers earnestly discuss their spiritual, political, and ideological differences, and every family member has a story arc that needs to get resolved with the predictable reliability of a BMW engine.
Two years ago, Wolfgang Becker's "Good Bye, Lenin" used a similar blueprint, dealing with serious topics and recent German history through a comedy contrivance. Perhaps it was Daniel Brühl's sweetly engaging innocence that made that movie work; in "Go for Zucker!", earnestness and farce make for an uncomfortable match. Even Jackie's high spirits come crashing down when he finally gets the chance to pour his heart out: he's a "Wende-Loser," somebody whose entire life as tv personality, socialist, father, and husband fell apart when the East collapsed and the country reunited. Before long, all the soul searching sucks the last bit of hilarity from the movie. Once the mood is ruined, every new attempt at humor rings hollow and false.