“I thought The Believer was going to be a comedy,” says veteran screenwriter Henry Bean, referring to his controversial directorial debut about a Jewish neo-Nazi. “I think a Jewish Nazi is a funny idea. The basic gag is: The harder he tries to be a Nazi, the more Jewish he becomes.”
Not everyone has gotten Bean’s joke. Though The Believer won the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, the movie won’t reach theaters until May 17, well over a year after its celebrated premiere. (It will first play on Showtime March 17.) Whether The Believer was too provocative or simply too ambiguous in its message about Jewish identity, the movie has strayed from the easy path of most Sundance winners, instead getting sidetracked by religious controversy and corporate politics.
“Look, I knew it might be inflammatory, but I thought, ‘This is good Torah,’ ” says Bean, 56, whose writing credits include cop flicks Deep Cover and Internal Affairs. “The film doesn’t resolve; it doesn’t answer.”
Based on the true story of American Nazi Party leader Daniel Burros, the film follows the exploits of Danny Balint, played by Ryan Gosling, a young skinhead who hides his Jewish background while committing violent anti-Semitic acts. Bean contends the film is about the conflicted experience of many American Jews. “Jewishness honors not only paradox and contradiction, but the spirit of self-criticism,” Bean writes in the introduction to The Believer: Confronting Jewish Self-Hatred (to be published this month by Thunder’s Mouth Press). He goes on to note the work of Lenny Bruce and Jackie Mason as influences, with their contrasting sides of Jewish pride and shame. Still, Bean always worried that the film could be misunderstood. “I was simply afraid that this love poem I was sending would be misread as a ‘fuck you’ note,” he writes. “That like someone in an Ionesco play, or with a weird version of Tourette’s, I was trying to say, ‘I love you,’ but what kept coming out of my mouth was, ‘Fuck you.’ ”
At Sundance, Bean’s fears faded. “It was quickly clear to me that people weren’t offended,” he says. “So as far as I knew, everybody saw the film the way I thought they would.” With the award, the audience support, and the accompanying buzz, Bean and his producers expected the big distribution offers to start pouring in.
“Under these circumstances, you’d normally come out of Sundance with a blockbuster kind of a deal on the independent level,” says Daniel Diamond, president of Fireworks Pictures, the company that produced the film and will release it this May through its own distribution venture, IDP. “But we were all scratching our heads: We knew we were up against some difficult politics.”
With several distributors still on the fence according to Bean, the filmmakers then screened The Believer for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the powerful, L.A.-based institution that has given its blessing to such Jewish-themed films as Schindler’s List and American History X. Looking for supporters, they instead found detractors.
“This film does not work,” says the center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “For example, you are no more enlightened about the motivation of the Jewish Nazi at the end of the story than at the beginning.” Cooper also objects to scenes of a hate crime in a synagogue, which he considers “over-the-top.”
Bean, in part, blames the Wiesenthal Center for damaging a potential distribution deal with Paramount Classics, a division of Paramount Pictures. “I had a meeting with Paramount Classics three hours before I went to the Wiesenthal Center, and we thought we were going to make this deal,” he says. “And the next day, [the Wiesenthal Center] talked to somebody at Paramount Classics; they said, ‘It’s a primer for anti-Semitism,’ and that deal was dead.”
Fireworks’ Daniel Diamond claims that Paramount Classics’ decision to back out came from higher up in the studio. “They loved the picture, and then everything ceased, because somewhere behind the gates of 5555 Melrose there was an upper-level management decision that changed all of that,” says Diamond. “I think people got nervous that the picture was too much of a hot potato.”
Paramount Classics declined to comment, but in an article published in The Jerusalem Post, David Dinerstein, co-president of the Classics division, said there was no such deal, and the opinions of the Wiesenthal Center played no part in their decision to turn down the movie.
Rabbi Cooper feels the whole incident was blown out of proportion and turned into a publicity ploy. “I guess the movie’s makers felt that by going public with my opinion, they could—and did—give the impression we have a vendetta against The Believer,” he says. “They apparently believed that this would be a great way to keep their movie in the public eye.”
Indeed, The Believer did not go away, and soon after, it was sold to cable TV network Showtime, no stranger to controversy, having handled such touchy titles as Lolita and Bastard out of Carolina. While the filmmakers always hoped the film would go to a big art-house distributor, cable TV became their best option economically. “We had to consider the necessities of those who invested in the movie,” says Diamond, “which in this case included the director.” (Bean financed the film partially through money he made on a rewrite of Enemy of the State.) Showtime also means a larger and more diverse audience for the movie. “It meant a lot to me that it would be seen by more people than it ever would in theaters, and it would be different people given the demographics of Showtime,” says Bean. “And I am excited about the prospects of those reactions.”
Finally, Bean awaited the film’s broadcast date on September 30, and after a minimum 45-day window required by the network, IDP’s theatrical run in January. But after the September 11 attacks, Showtime chose to postpone the premiere, according to a press release, “to a time when our audience might be more receptive to this kind of strong drama.” The newly scheduled TV premiere has consequently pushed the theatrical release to the spring; as Bean notes, “Now we’re coming out against Star Wars [Episode II].”
As The Believer‘s long-delayed trip to audiences finally reaches its end, the writer-director is ultimately looking to move on. “I’m ready for this thing to be over,” Bean says. “I already went through all this anxiety about how the film is going to be treated. Is anybody going to care? Is anybody going to like it? Now I have to go back to that again.” Bean also wants to return to his next project, “about a man who’s being driven crazy by the noise in New York City,” he says. “I hope it’s a comedy.”
KISSING JESSICA STEIN
In this adaptation of the Broadway hit Lipschtick, the titular successful singleton—heretofore straight—tries batting for the home team via the personals.
A multithread narrative chronicles disparate encounters between Israelis and their bedouin neighbors.
When a photojournalist (David Strathairn) goes missing and is presumed dead in the war-torn Balkans, his wife (Andie MacDowell) mounts a perilous search effort. Tragic parallels with current news may add extracinematic frisson; the leading lady’s oddly elegant ineptitude always does.
Mammoths, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers raise a human baby in this computer-animated prehistoric fantasy. Voices by Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Cedric the Entertainer, and Denis Leary.
PAULINE & PAULETTE
Not the tale of a powerful film critic and her worshipful acolyte, but an Oscar-baiting Belgian tearjerker about geriatric sisters.
This acclaimed doc follows seven Palestinian and Israeli children in Jerusalem over a period of four years.
Led by machine-gunning Milla Jovovich in ripped gown and hooker boots, a state-sponsored band of starship troopers battle a tyrannical supercomputer and its minions of flesh-eating scientists. Directed by Mortal Kombat‘s Paul “No, I’m the Other One” Anderson.
In an attempt to burnish its image, a police department drafts rookie hotshot Eddie Murphy and just-the-facts vet Robert De Niro as stars of a Cops-like TV series. Directed by Tom Dey, who somewhat peppered the buddy-movie formula in Shanghai Noon.
Y TU MAMA TAMBIÉN
A pair of stoner pals hit the road with a hot babe in Alfonso Cuarón’s comedy, the most successful Mexican movie ever.
YUGOSLAVIA: THE AVOIDABLE WAR
Widely praised in the U.K., this documentary plumbs the consequences of Western intervention in the Balkan conflicts.
Wesley Snipes returns as the vampire-slaying hero, with Mexican pulp auteur Guillermo del Toro at the helm, but here’s all you need to know: The villain, a creature who sucks blood through his palms, is played by Luke Goss, one of the twins in ’80s Brit teenybopper group Bros.
SON OF THE BRIDE
Argentina’s Oscar entry finds a navel-gazing fortysomething struggling seriocomically through a midlife crisis.
A trio of rowdy bosom buddies get booted from their dorm and don drag to live in the “DOG House,” a women’s residence so named for its dearth of hotties. Next up in the misanthropic-college-comedy sweepstakes: Raise the Roofie, an irreverent date-rape romp.
VERY ANNIE MARY
Former opera prodigy Rachel Griffiths finds her ambitions short-circuited by overbearing dad Jonathan Pryce; or, Margot Tenenbaum stars in Little Voice.
SHOT IN THE HEART
Agnieszka Holland adapts Mikal Gilmore’s wrenching memoir of his brother, death-row killer Gary (Elias Koteas), also subject of The Executioner’s Song.
Honey, I froze the kids: A scientist develops a mechanism that makes time stand still, but accidentally amber-izes his son and a friend.
DEATH TO SMOOCHY
Barney hatred gets its own black comedy. Robin Williams’s washed-up kids-show host tries to snuff out Edward Norton’s guy-in-the-rhino-suit. Enlivening the supporting cast, Catherine Keener and Jon Stewart play the network execs.
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VAN WILDER
Sixth-year college senior tries to defer graduation indefinitely. Audiences try to prevent desperate resuscitation of obsolete franchise.
NO SUCH THING
A toilet-mouthed monster embarks on a murder spree, attracting the attention of an inexperienced journalist (Sarah Polley). Hal Hartley’s always hit-and-miss; for what it’s worth, the trailer is excruciating.
David Fincher goes for another high-concept mindfuck. When burglars invade her New York townhouse, Jodie Foster and child hole up in a secret antechamber for a protracted session of claustrophobic terror.
THE PIANO TEACHER
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s latest instrument of torture subjects Isabelle Huppert, playing a repressed music instructor, to a series of grueling debasements; the actress responds with one of the greatest performances of her career.
High school coach Dennis Quaid tries out for major league baseball at age 35. Unrelated to the Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen cop buddy movie, which is good. Written by the guy responsible for Finding Forrester, which is not.
THE SWEETEST THING
Sick-of-men best friends Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate go on a raunchy road trip. Cruel Intentions‘ Roger Kumble directs.
TEDDY BEARS’ PICNIC
Simpsons linchpin and Spinal Tap bassist Harry Shearer helms a mock exposé of a secret retreat for the rich and powerful.
Laurent Cantet follows Human Resources with another festival favorite. A middle-management exec gets canned and invents a new job, convincing friends to invest in his make-believe business.
ONE GIANT LEAP
Two globe-trotting musicians, armed only with laptop and digital-video camera, produce New Age travelogue.
Abbas Kiarostami’s first DV effort documents the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO), which toils in a nation where 2 million have died of AIDS, 2 million more are infected, and 1.6 million children have lost one or both parents to the disease.
A bomb-in-suitcase subplot delayed Barry Sonnenfeld’s crime-caper farce (adapted from the Dave Barry novel) from its original September release date.
Bridget Jones times three in this tale of the Sad Fucksters’ Club, with Imelda Staunton, Anna Chancellor, and expat Andie MacDowell.
Director Bill Paxton also stars as an insane heartland dad who thinks God has commissioned him as his own personal hit man, possibly transforming his youngest son into an angel of death as well.
Kiss the Girls‘ Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman reunite for Rules of Engagement 2, playing army attorneys who defend Judd’s husband (Jim Caviezel) when he’s put on trial for war crimes in El Salvador.
Chris Smith’s follow-up to American Movie explores the unusual living spaces of five families.
KUNG FU SOCCER
Hong Kong football hooligans lay Chan-style waste to the field.
Olivier Assayas’s generation-spanning epic is a galvanizing departure for the director, a mild rebuke to heritage cinema (the kinetic, decidedly anti-genteel lensing is by French cinematography juggernaut Eric Gautier), and a lavish acting playground for stars Charles Berling, Emmanuelle Béart, and Isabelle Huppert.
Bizet’s opera is relocated to present-day Dakar for the first black Carmen since Otto Preminger and Dorothy Dandridge’s 1954 version.
Falling Down squared: Commuters Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson lock horns in an escalating road-rage war on FDR Drive.
Being John Malkovich writer Charlie Kaufman updates Truffaut’s Wild Child in this surprisingly clunky comedy about nudity, civilization, and body hair. Music video stylist Michel Gondry directs; Spike Jonze’s deadpan understatement is sorely missed.
Thirty characters, five stories, one interminable day of boho posing at the Chelsea Hotel. Novelist Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut.
GIRLS CAN’T SWIM
Over the course of one pivotal summer, a small-town French teen and her city-mouse best friend realize that the onset of hormones and sexual discovery has fractured their bond.
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Megalomaniac Hollywood producer Robert Evans gets an ego massage. Narrated by Robert Evans.
MURDER BY NUMBERS
FBI agents Sandra Bullock and Ben Chaplin go on the trail of two whiz-kid murderers (Ryan Gosling and Michael Pitt). Barbet Schroeder, fresh off Our Lady of the Assassins, returns to hack anonymity.
THE SCORPION KING
The quarreling nomadic tribes of ancient Gomorrah try to unite against an evil despot in this Mummy spin-off, starring Dwayne Johnson, a/k/a the Rock.
Bart Freundlich follows Myth of Fingerprints, his J. Crew catalog come to life, with . . . a bit of Gap-ad Beat Generation chic, perhaps? Billy Crudup hits the road.
FACING THE MUSIC
A university music department suffers under draconian budget cuts and considers a strike in this Australian documentary.
Scott Kalvert, whose two most notable directorial credits are The Basketball Diaries and Form, Focus, Fitness: The Marky Mark Workout, revamps West Side Story, loses the songs, and transports it across the East River to Brooklyn. With Matt Dillon, Stephen Dorff, and Fairuza Balk.
DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS
The former is a slum near Santa Monica; the latter are members of a skateboarding collective called the Zephyr team, captured here with narration by Sean Penn.
FRANK MCKLUSKY C.I.
An insurance claims investigator goes undercover. Starring Dave Sheridan, a veteran of MTV’s Buzzkill, with Randy Quaid and Dolly Parton as the McKluskys.
Young girl with boozy mom and loser dad comes of age in ’70s New Zealand.
A late-twentysomething schoolteacher abandons the inert comforts of a long-term relationship for the perilous badlands of L.A. singledom in this Dogme-inspired DV feature.
In Peter Cattaneo’s first film since The Full Monty, a pair of bank-robbing buddies stage a musical as a front for their prison escape—très Sound of Music! Olivia Williams, Rushmore‘s Miss Cross, costars as the stir shrink.
Yet another retelling of the homicidal Papin sisters’ saga, Jean-Pierre Denis’s version is nimbly shot and expertly paced, though its preeminent asset is Sylvie Testud’s shattering performance as the deranged elder sister.
THE MYSTIC MASSEUR
How’s this for a Celebrity Death Match: Ismail Merchant versus V.S. Naipaul.
Brothers inherit said cottage in rural France; phonetic mishaps (largely committed by appealingly goofball star Paul Rudd) and über-wacky hijinks ensue in Jesse Peretz’s fitfully amusing DV farce.
A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT
Chris Marker delivers a three-hour portrait of the French left: their ideals, their culture, their fondness for felines.
The new Woody Allen. Plot under wraps as ever (actually we still don’t know the plot of the last three). The title suggests media satire; the cast overflows with TV names: Téa Leoni, Debra Messing, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Scott Wolf.
Bitten by a radioactive spider, Tobey Maguire turns arachnoid hero; exposed to nerve gas, Willem Dafoe turns Green Goblin; the increasingly in-scrutable Sam Raimi turns F/X handmaiden.
Scottish lass heads for London hoping to find a cure for mum’s agoraphobia. Starring former Eighth Wonder frontwoman, ex-Mrs. Liam Gallagher, and longtime Brit tabloid fixture Patsy Kensit.
THE LADY AND THE DUKE
At age 81, Eric Rohmer makes his first DV feature, an austere French Revolution drama shot against blue screen and superimposed on painted backdrops.
THE PAROLE OFFICER
Framed for murder, a Manchester ne’er-do-well attempts to clear his name by stealing CCTV footage locked in a bank vault.
Not more, not now, not again: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s masturbatory self-pity party gets restaged as a star vehicle for Christina Ricci as the insufferable budding artiste. Mitigating factor: Anne Heche cast as a therapist.
Richard Gere’s posh Westchester marriage goes haywire when wife Diane Lane has an affair with Olivier Martinez (of Before Night Falls). This is Adrian Lyne’s bunny roast, so no doubt Gere goes nuts by the last reel.
The final installment in Matthew Barney’s visually opulent series, after Cremasters 4, 1, 5, and 2. Set mainly in the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim.
STAR WARS: EPISODE II ATTACK OF THE CLONES
Is it that time again already?
ABOUT A BOY
Chris and Paul Weitz adapt Nick Hornby’s myopic cutefest about a London bachelor who hooks up with single mums by masquerading as a single dad. John Cusack in High Fidelity added an intriguing layer of faintly repellent self-loathing to his Hornby stand-in, but star Hugh Grant don’t play that.
Another Coppola gets behind the camera: Roman’s ode to retro-futurist chic imagines the troubled production of a Barbarella-like romp in 1969 Paris.
Stuck in a bad marriage, J. Lo decides to off the guy. Bit soon to be remaking Double Jeopardy, no?
Memento‘s Christopher Nolan vaults himself into big-budget Hollywood with, perhaps ominously, a remake. (Original director Erik Skjoldbjaerg, for his part, makes his H’wood arrival via Prozac Nation.) In a small Alaska town, Al Pacino tries to solve a murder while grappling with guilt over the accidental death of his partner; Robin Williams and Hilary Swank costar.
SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMMARON
DreamWorks’ animated Cinema-Scope film tracks an Old West horse captured by the cavalry.
THIRTEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING
Not a blackbird, but the pursuit of happiness: Jill Sprecher’s tapestry follow-up to Clockwatch-ers tackles middle age, infidelity, vengeance, and more in discrete multiple narratives.
Set within Tel Aviv’s Georgian community, Dover Kosashvili’s family tragicomedy swept the board at last year’s Israeli Oscars.
Listings by Dennis Lim and Jessica Winter