Marjorie Morningstar, 1958
Crimes & Misdemeanors, 1989
It Runs in the Family, 2003
When Do We Eat?, 2005
Passover works for movies the way Christmas does: Through the lens of the Seder, souls are bared, family secrets revealed, and sometimes, insight is gained.
One of the first modern films to include a Seder scene was the 1958 classic Marjorie Morningstar, director Irving Rapper’s exploration of women and love in the 1950s based on the novel by Herman Wouk. The beautiful Marjorie Morgenstern (Natalie Wood) falls for Noel Airman (Gene Kelly), the social director at a summer resort. Talented but tortured, Noel is not suitable husband material for a girl from the Upper West Side. Determined to wed him nevertheless, Marjorie brings him home for Passover. The Seder at the Morgenstern apartment is quintessentially perfect and reflective of the era, down to the table decorated with candelabras and stylized floral arrangements. Her family is loving and traditional: Marjorie’s father, draped in his white robe and donning a kippah, leads the family in prayer. Noel clearly doesn’t fit in: He fidgets throughout the ritual dinner and fails to impress Marjorie’s mother. Still, Marjorie refuses to give him up, even though all can see the relationship is doomed.
Woody Allen employs the memory of a Seder in his 1989 psychological drama Crimes & Misdemeanors. Judah (Martin Landau) has had his blackmailing mistress (Anjelica Huston) killed. He is a man who long ago left God behind, but flashes of memory from his childhood begin torturing him, driving him to return to the home where he grew up and to ask the current owner if he can walk around the house. While standing in the doorway of the dining room, he remembers his father Saul—a man of faith—mother and aunts and uncles as they bickered around the Seder table. Saul’s sister May wants him to hurry through the Seder. “Are you afraid if you don’t follow the rules that God’s going to punish you?” she asks, to which her brother replies, “He won’t punish me, May. He punishes the wicked.” She retorts: “Is that how Hitler got away with killing six million Jews?” The present-day Judah addresses his father and asks what happens to a man who kills. His father tells him that one way or another, that man will be punished. Other family members chime in to insist that a killer will not suffer as long as he is never caught or troubled by ethical considerations. Judah, however, can’t escape his moral feelings.
Real kin, members of the Douglas dynasty, play another combative clan in the 2003 dramedy It Runs In the Family. Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) is at the head of the table and all seems well until it comes time for his grandson Eli (Rory Culkin) to ask the four questions. At this moment, Eli’s father Alex (Michael Douglas) takes a call on his cell phone, igniting an argument between Mitchell and Alex. Their wives try to stop them from arguing while Eli just tries to steamroll ahead. To add to the chaos, Alex’s eldest son Asher (Cameron Douglas) strolls in, to which his father remarks, “At least you got here before Elijah did.” The squabbling continues through the Seder until finally Alex’s wife Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) declares it time for her sons to look for the afikomen. With the exception of Hollywood-sized afikomen prizes—each son scores $1,000—this Seder looks like many a modern gathering: fairly short with much eating of brisket. One second, family members are yelling at each other, the next they’re laughing together. No one has a problem expressing exactly what’s on his or her mind, except when it comes to the real root of their mishugas…but that’s what the rest of the movie is for.
The most over-the-top dysfunctional family Seder film of all time, however, is When Do We Eat (2005)? It tells the story of yet another family trying to make it through the obligatory holiday meal. Ira Stuckman (Michael Lerner) is a patriarch perpetually plagued by acid reflux, presiding over a group that includes his second wife and their four self-centered children, his gay daughter from his first marriage plus her girlfriend and his cantankerous father, played by the inimitable Jack Klugman. Ira’s attempt to conduct the world’s fastest Seder goes awry when his teenage stoner son slips a tab of Ecstacy into his antacid. In his drugged state, Ira recounts to his family his wild visions of past and present Seders, including a heart-breaking meal with just him and his father eating from cartons of Chinese food: “It’s all here and now,” he rambles. “The Seder. Pop’s Seder. The sages’ Seder… Listen, we’re in the desert. We just left Egypt, we don’t know where we’re going, but we’re here now and God is near.” Ira’s oldest son, an overly pious recent convert to Orthodox Judaism, tries to find meaning in the situation and says, “Tonight…Dad is Moses, and he’s finally feeling God.” The Seder scene takes up most of the movie, but the hallucinations and outbursts are enough to keep it interesting, especially when we discover…well, stick with the film for a sweet surprise ending plus a family that finally learns to get along. That doesn’t happen at every Seder, but it makes for a great conclusion to a super-schmaltzy holiday flick.