Here’s something you don’t generally want to do when dealing with an actor as good as Brian Cox: begin the movie after his character has already died.
That’s where we start in Blumenthal, writer-director Seth Fisher’s feature debut, and while the film isn’t without merit — Fisher’s clearly a gifted writer of comedy — the death of Harold Blumenthal (Cox) proves a frustrating narrative catalyst, since Cox’s performance (seen in a tribute interview on TV) suggests more inner life than all the rest of the characters combined.
Fisher uses the passing of Harold, a celebrated, award-winning New York playwright, to offer a multi-generational study of the surviving members of the Blumenthal family: drug-rep Ethan (played by Fisher), who peddles birth control and hormone replacements and who is going through a rough patch with his acupuncturist girlfriend (Mei Melançon); Cheryl (Laila Robins), an aging actress trying to overcome her appearance-related anxieties to perform well in an upcoming audition; and Harold’s brother, the constipated Saul (Mark Blum), who harbors a belief that Harold plagiarized his memoirs to find material for his plays.
As he’s a multi-hyphenate working in such a neurotic, Jewish-specific realm of comedy, Fisher’s efforts feel reminiscent of early Woody Allen, and he creates a number of supporting characters — a peculiar dog walker (Kevin Isola), a jellybean-chewing agent named Jimmy Basmati (A Serious Man‘s Fred Melamed) — that offer a farcical energy.
But Fisher’s filmmaking, aside from a couple scenes between Ethan and his best friend (Alexander Cendese) that are nicely composed in long-take two-shots, is too consistently flat to make the material spark. His fast dialogue, however, is so frequently funny that he might not want to rule out a career in Harold Blumenthal’s own medium.