Holy Lands isn’t a bad movie. It’s four mediocre movies mixed together.
There’s the fish-out-of-water film. There’s the cranky-old-performer/Oscar-bait film. There’s the dysfunctional family film. There’s the lightly literary art film. Except in this case, the total is less than the sum of its parts.
Directed and written by Amanda Sthers, adapting her own novel Les Terres Saintes, it’s the story of a rich, iconoclastic Jewish senior citizen who decided to abandon Manhattan to become a pig farmer in Israel. Because, why? The movie leaves that question alone, although it quickly becomes clear that Harry is used to being hated. In fact, he may even prefer it.
He’s alienated from his ex-wife. He’s been estranged from his adult son since the boy came out of the closet, and he has little contact with his adult daughter, who he’s helped turn into a needy, perpetual adolescent. And on this patch of rural Israel, as quarrelsome and diverse as his neighbors can be – Muslim, Orthodox Jew, and eccentric fundamentalist Christian — there is one thing they can all agree on: Harry and his pigs have to go.
Which, of course, makes horrible Harry dig in his heels even harder.
Sthers, whose name really feels like it’s missing a vowel, has assembled a good cast here. It’s a delight, for example, to see James Caan actually trying again, instead of just walking through some shakily funded mobster movie. As Harry, he’s refreshingly back in touch with his Jewish New York roots, and a commanding, kvetching delight. His tender scenes with a mischievous piglet are adorable.
Also tremendous is – who knew? — Tom Hollander as the Orthodox rabbi next door, who’s full of rock-ribbed prohibitions, but also wisdom and recipes. And it’s always a pleasure to see Rosanna Arquette, who actually gets the best scenes as Harry’s still beautiful, still bohemian wife.
But what was it that split these two wonderful characters apart? And how did they end up having such dreary children? Jonathan Rhys Meyers can be an exciting actor, but here, as Harry’s wayward son, he’s just a drip, mooning around his trendy apartment and staging absolutely awful avant-garde plays. (Think Suspiria dance recitals, minus the dance). Still, he’s a ball of fire next to his sister, played by Efrat Dor as a whining, unemployed thirty-something who cannot believe Daddy hasn’t sent the check for her latest therapy session. Poor baby.
The problem may simply be that – as a director filming her own screenplay, of her own novel – Sthers had no one to raise a hand and say, excuse me, but, this doesn’t really work as a movie. Cinema thrives on conflict, yet the entire idea behind the story is that nobody in this family dares actually confront anyone else. At best, they exchange poetically passive-aggressive letters, which we occasionally hear read on the soundtrack. They’re nicely phrased missives, of course, but they’re a long way from drama. Also, when it does come, the dialogue often sounds like someone’s tone-deaf idea of how New Yorkers really speak (“Eh, Shabbat THIS!”)
True, there are some lovely shots of Israel (although, apolitical as most of the film is, Sthers can’t help herself from including one lecture on the West Bank wall — painful mostly because it’s so obvious). And it’s great to see Caan actually acting again, and having fun; it’s hard to say which are sweeter, his bantering scenes with Hollander, or his cuddly scenes with his piglet. But you know what would be even nicer?
Seeing him in a real movie again.