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The mix-up-at-the-sperm-bank premise, the basis for 1993's vacuous Made in America, takes a turn for the kosher in Vadim Jean's and Gary Sinyor's Leon the Pig Farmer. The quirky, oddly engaging little film has its Miami premiere this Saturday at the Colony Theater as part of the Jewish Film Festival on Miami Beach. While the plot is less than fresh and the production values well below Hollywood standards, Leon still offers comic delights.
Leon Geller, the film's hapless protagonist, is in the midst of one doozy of an identity crisis. He has grown up in a middle-class, traditional Jewish household on London's north side. His father is a net curtain salesman, his mother a caterer. Both of his brothers are married and raising families. The pressure is on Leon to make something of himself and to marry a nice Jewish girl and start a brood of his own.
Unfortunately, nothing ever works out quite the way it should for young Mr. Geller. As the film opens, Leon is trying to make a name for himself as a real estate agent, but it quickly becomes obvious he is not suited for the trade. He's conscientious enough, and ambitious. But Leon has a fatal flaw for a salesman: He's honest. A less ethical co-worker quickly sells a mansion that was supposed to be Leon's exclusive listing out from under him, the one he's been trying to move for seven months. His best friend at the office cannot understand why Leon makes such a big deal out of eating strictly kosher food. And, in one of the film's funnier moments, when a flighty Italian developer engages Leon's firm to help convert the Charles Dickens estate into essentially an English version of Wayne (Huizenga)'s World, complete with aromatherapy suite, go-cart track, and indoor water skiing, Leon, the only member of the firm to appreciate the irony, snaps. He resigns from the office and goes to work for his mother.
Mark Frankel, who plays Leon with a stuttering, geeky charm vaguely reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, makes an engaging protagonist. While transporting sandwiches to a medical complex one afternoon ("To you we deliver/salted beef and chopped liver," is the company motto), Leon accidentally makes the shocking discovery that he and his siblings are the product of artificial insemination. The news sends Leon into hysterics, but when he confronts his parents their response is apathetic. "You should be very proud. You were one of the first in the country," his mother tells him.
Worried that his father's low sperm count might be an inherited trait, Leon undergoes a test to see if he suffers from the same condition. The results are worse than he could have imagined. Leon finds out that there was a mixup at the lab 30 years earlier. The net curtain salesman is not his biological father. His real dad is -- horror of horrors -- a gentile pig farmer.
And so it goes, Leon stumbling from one ridiculous circumstance to another with a mixture of bewilderment and fatalism. Leon's legal father rejects him when he finds out his "son" isn't Jewish while his biological father embraces him. (The film conveniently ignores the tenet of Jewish law that you're considered Jewish if your mother is.) The gentile family goes to great lengths to make Leon feel at home, sprinkling their daily conversation with phrases culled from The Joy of Yiddish and Portnoy's Complaint and laboring over chicken soup. A beautiful young shiksa beds him while he still thinks he's Jewish to get back at her anti-Semitic father, then dumps him when his true heritage is revealed.
Overall the movie is a hodgepodge of subtle irony and Borscht Belt shtick. The camera work, editing, and sound quality are all substandard, but the writing is often witty and observant. It may not make you snort with laughter, but Leon the Pig Farmer brings home the bacon.
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