James Caan in Holy Lands (Photo: Cinedigm)
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Amanda Sthers
STARS James Caan, Tom Hollander
Meet Harry Rosenmerck (James Caan), who often resembles nothing so much as a Jewish Archie Bunker. When he moves from New York to Israel, it’s not for any religious reasons but to become a pig famer among kosher eaters. When he discusses his gay son David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a playwright back in the Big Apple, he prefers to block out the reality that he kisses other men. And when the combative Rabbi Moshe (Tom Hollander) invites him to Shabbat, Harry extends his middle finger while yelling, “Shabbat this!” It’s no wonder his children David and Annabelle (Efrat Dor) feel distant from him while his ex-wife Monica (Rosanna Arquette) refers to him as “a food pornographer; the Larry Flynt of bacon; Harry Flynt in the Middle East.”
Based on Amanda Sthers’ novel, with the author herself serving as scripter and director, Holy Lands is a sprawling familial saga that works best when it remains squarely focused on Harry. Part of the reason is Caan, a ‘70s fixture in such films as The Godfather and Rollerball. At 79, the actor remains as busy as ever, even if it’s in low-budget movies very few actually see. But Holy Lands reminds us that he can be a dynamic presence when the role is right, and in Harry Rosenmerck, he’s gifted a part that allows him to showcase a wide spectrum of emotions.
The heart of Holy Lands finds Harry forming an unlikely friendship with Rabbi Moshe, and this odd-couple pairing provides the picture with the vast majority of its strongest moments. Harry and Rabbi Moshe certainly don’t see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean they can’t respond to each other’s finer qualities. (The same, alas, can’t be said for the relationship between Harry and a fanatical Catholic priest who provides the movie with its sliver of villainy.) Aside from an unfair anti-Palestinian line randomly tossed in by Sthers, their dialogue proves to be lively and engaging, and it’s a shame whenever the movie turns away from them.
Alas, the attention is shifted away from Harry with regularity, since Holy Lands ultimately isn’t a story about Harry as much as it’s a story about the Rosenmerck clan. But the plotlines involving the other family members aren’t nearly as compelling. Arquette brings dignity to her scenes as the mom who has just learned that a brain tumor means she has only a year left to live, but the story strands involving their offspring — specifically, Annabelle’s inability to grow up and Harry’s need to channel his life into his plays — are half-formed and only intermittently interesting. Because of the relative flatness of these interludes — and because of the vibrancy of Caan and the character he’s playing — it makes one ultimately wish that Holy Lands was less a family affair and more a one-man show.
(Holy Lands is now available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNow, and other streaming platforms.)