Donny’s Bar Mitzvah is a funny, disturbing and uncomfortable movie that delivers laughs and shock in equal measure but had the potential to be a lot more than that.
What’s It All About?
Donny Drucker’s 1998 Bar Mitzvah VHS Tape.
OK, so the official description of Donny’s Bar Mitzvah does not really reveal much so I will try and give you a little overview of what it is about.
Presented as a home video and shot in all it’s handheld glory complete with typical 90’s camcorder aesthetics this documents Donny’s Bar Mitzvah which is Oscar themed. The story soon breaks down into several subplots as the characters stories intertwine with one another throughout the party.
Writer, director, producer and also actor (he plays the super awkward bartender) Jonathan Kaufman is pushing the boundaries of acceptability with his very low brow and politically incorrect humor. This movie is more than likely to offend even the most brazen of crowds. The comedy does get dark and at times uncomfortable. With that being said there is no denying that Kaufman knows how to make people laugh. Some of the comedy will have you crying with laughter, and it is rapid fire as it quickly cuts from one scene to the next, not giving you a minute to catch your breath. The praise for the writing is not only extended to the comedy, some of the many subplots were also thoroughly enjoyable, in particular Danny Trejo making an appearance playing himself, however, he is an undercover agent dressed as a female, trying to track down the Party Pooper, who literally poops at parties.
What stands out in all of this is Kaufman can write. Considering this is his feature film debut he has done a magnificent job containing and controlling the many stories, giving them all a satisfactory conclusion. The storylines are well thought out and although some were better than others he manages to keep them under control and tie each one up. A very impressive debut from Kaufman.
The cinematography and editing were both tight. Although this is presented as found footage. It did not really feel like I was watching that. It was extremely well framed and visually very interesting. It was presented as using the hand-cam style but I did not feel as though we had too much of the jerky movements and I did not feel as though I was watching found footage. The quick cuts and sharp editing all help to tell the story and move it forward at the same time as giving a unique spin on the teen sex comedy. This was an extremely well made and put together film.
The film was as a home video. The opening scene shows a hand grabbing a old VHS tape and putting it in the VCR. We get the typical 90’s camcorder aesthetics such as the tracking, the low battery sign and everything else you would expect to see in a home video, including static and interference. This was a nice touch and helped to cement the fact we are watching a film from 1998. Some small touches that really help to set the scene.
The cast were all very strong. Steele Stebbins put in a particularly impressive showing as Donny, John DeLuca was hilarious as Bobby, Donny’s brother and Michael Patrick McGill put in a hilarious performance which was completely over-the-top but perfectly fitting for his character. All in all the cast were impressive.
The comedy in this film is very low brow and at times gets pretty dark. There were moments that I did feel a little uncomfortable watching this. I imagine that was the intention of Kaufman, wanting to shock his audience. Unfortunately for my personal taste this was a negative. I think anyone who is easily offended would be avoiding this at all costs and I have a feeling a lot of people would be offended by some of the content in this film. I think lowering the shock value slightly would definitely widen his audience appeal as there are a lot of laugh out loud moments.
As I mentioned earlier Kaufman juggles many different subplots throughout the film effectively intertwining these stories throughout the party. The only issue that I had with this is that at times I felt that it was a little hard to keep up with what was going on. However, I am reluctant to note this down as a negative as I think multiple watches would allow you to fully appreciate the subplots and pick up on all the comedy.
By the end of the movie the jokes have definitely run out of steam. It did seem to get a little repetitive by the half way mark and felt tiresome by the end. The pace of this movie never slows down for a second which makes it a marathon. Kaufman simply tried to pack too much into his movie.
With the emphasis of this movie being the comedy a lot of the characters became one dimensional. In order to maintain the fast paced nature and rapid fire comedy the character development was sacrificed. Only a handful of characters had any real character development or growth beyond the stereotypes they were intended to be.
The most frustrating thing abut Donny’s Bar Mitzvah is that behind all the comedy, vulgar humor and shocking scenes is actually a really good story. I think the story of Donny becoming a man and making that transition from a child is a really interesting take on the teen sex comedy. Donny is a relatable character. If Kaufman had scaled back some of the other subplots and the scaled back on some of the more shock inducing comedy and concentrated more on the stories, in particular Donny, Kaufman could have told an excellent story and made a great movie. Instead we get this funny, yet a little disturbing and uncomfortable film designed to shock which I think will appeal to a certain type of movie-goer but not have the success that I think it should get. Kaufman is clearly a great talent but has tried to do a little too much and lost his story in the process.
The whole cast of Donny’s Bar Mitzvah put in solid performances, I felt as though all the cast were extremely strong in this film.
Steele Stebbins played Donny. Stebbins did an excellent job as the awkward teenager. Stebbins continues his acting journey with this solid performance to his name. He juggled the emotional minefield of being a teenager with ease. His talents will only continue to improve and grow. A very mature performance. I have a feeling big things lie ahead for Stebbins.
Danny Trejo played Danny Trejo. This minor role for Trejo was certainly a scene stealing one. I think it is safe to say that Danny Trejo is a unique individual and only he is capable of pulling off performances such as this. He was brilliant as the undercover agent. The fact that he actually looked nothing like the female he was supposed to be impersonating made this even funnier. His seriousness portrayal of the character really knocked this up to the next level.
John DeLuca played Bobby Donny’s older brother. DeLuca really dove into this character. He didn’t hold back with anything and really gave it his all. His enthusiasm shone through and although I thought his story-arc was the weakest he gave an excellent performance. He put everything he had into this and it paid off.
Michael Patrick McGill played Tom. The adults used the party as excuse so the could get wasted and Tom was one of the worst offenders. I loved McGill’s interpretation of Tom. He really nailed it. He balanced his outlandish behavior to make a pretty obnoxious character likable.
At times this film was ‘rolling on the floor’ funny with some excellent jokes, great story-telling and visually pleasing. Other times it was a little uncomfortable and awkward to watch as the shock factor and low brow humor got pushed up to explosive levels. A well polished film with a strong cast and some nice nostalgic aesthetics meant it was well presented. Ultimately I felt as though Kaufman tried to do a little too much and opted to go for shock-factor rather than telling a meaningful story. A bit of a missed opportunity but with a lot of positives that can be taken away from it.