** out of ****
The fact that “Yentl” is a labor of love by Barbra Streisand is no question—after all, she directed, co-produced, co-wrote, and starred in it. However, her vehicle amounts to a heap of sentimentality when the story itself occasionally becomes forgotten in the midst of sappy introspective songs.
“Yentl” is the story of a young Jewish girl from Eastern Europe who is educated in secret by her father but must disguise herself as a boy in order to continue her studies when he dies. Now named Anshel, she is accepted into a yeshiva (a Jewish law school, for you non-Hebrew speakers) and befriends fellow student Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) and his betrothed, Hadass (Amy Irving). However, she begins to see the consequences of her actions as her “passing” leads to multiple instances of almost being “outed” by Avigdor and finally leads to her subsequent betrothal to Hadass. Yentl (or Anshel) must then figure out how to work her way out of the hole in which she continues to dig herself before it becomes too late and the consequences lead to disastrous results.
Since she displays her Jewish heritage prominently and proudly in every film in which she stars (verify for yourself), it was only a matter of time before Streisand would star in a role such as Yentl. However, although she can play a frumpy woman (“The Mirror Has Two Faces”), she does not play a convincing man. In fact, the suspension of disbelief regarding her gender role-reversal is never in place for me because I could not fathom how Avigdor did not have the sense to realize that “Anshel” is just not “one of the guys.” On the other hand, Barbra’s work behind the camera is certainly admirable, especially for her debut. She understands the way films work visually and uses this to her advantage, creating interesting shots with effective uses of blocking, lighting, etc. However, the film’s most interesting and memorable shot is amusingly “borrowed.” It is the final shot that circles over Yentl as she happily sails to America, which recalls the aerial shot of Streisand on the ferry boat by the Empire State Building, belting out the final note of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in “Funny Girl.” However, for "Yentl," this shot seems out-of-place and too sensational.
Meanwhile, in general, the film’s acting performances are satisfactory. Not great and not bad—just satisfactory. Streisand, although, again, wholly unconvincing as a man, brings Yentl/Anshel to life through her genuine connection to the character and her struggle. The other two leading actors’ performances are those about which I feel the most ambivalent, which would be a logical conclusion given the Oscar and Razzie nominations for Irving for her role.
I think this film would have worked best as a drama and not as a musical. It seems that the serious subject matter of "Yentl" is treated too lightly with the music. Because Barbra breaks out in song almost on cue, the story gets old quickly and loses its thrust. When it gets old, it just becomes painful. Because the film runs over two hours, viewers wait tediously as Yentl goes from conflict to conflict until she finally reveals her true identity to Avigdor, perhaps the most exciting part of the story when it finally happens. However, this is certainly a film best recommended for Barbra’s fans because it will take infatuation with her to get through even the most agonizingly boring parts. But be warned: it takes a fan to be able to swallow an unabashed Barbra vehicle.
Yentl was released on DVD for the first time in Region 1 on February 3rd. To secure your own copy of the film, click here.
February 11, 2009
** out of ****