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Sixty Six
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by David Cornelius

"Offbeat, nostalgic, wonderful."
5 stars

Bernie Reubens doesn’t care for football. He has asthma. He wears thick glasses. He’s tormented by his older brother. He’s ignored by his family. He’s always picked last for sports - yes, even after the kid with polio.

“Sixty Six” introduces itself as “a true-ish story” tale inspired by director Paul Weiland’s own troublesome youth. The title refers to the year, 1966, when Weiland - and his fictional counterpart, young Bernie - lived in London with his strange little family. The tale opens with Bernie (Gregg Sulkin) prepping for his bar mitzvah, where he hopes to get the chance to finally one-up his brother (Ben Newton), who years ago had the best bar mitzvah of them all. Bernie has it all planned out: 250 guests, a full orchestra, the works. “The ‘Gone with the Wind’ of bar mitzvahs.” Maybe Frankie Vaughan could stop by and sing? Wouldn’t hurt to send him an invite. After all, this is about more than becoming a man. It’s about the long-awaited chance at being the center of attention.

Slowly, surely, it all falls apart. The party is scheduled for July 30, and football fans can see where this is headed. Bernie is dismayed to learn this is the date of the World Cup finals, and this is the year England isn’t just hosting, but actually has a chance at winning the darn thing. Who would want to attend Bernie’s bar mitzvah when they could stay home (or, better yet, scrounge up tickets) and watch the biggest game in the history of British sports?

Bernie - hoping that if England loses early in the tournament, they’ll be out of the finals, and he might get that big party yet - wonders if it’s a sin to root against your country’s team. How about voodoo incantations against the star players? Leave that for the rabbis to figure out. Bernie’s got a party to save.

Even if you don’t know your World Cup history, you can probably figure out where this is going. But the World Cup game is just the hook, a nifty way to draw you in: “Oh, my bar mitzvah? Yeesh. You’ve heard of the 1966 World Cup, right?” Bernie’s story goes deeper. The real trouble isn’t with the date, but with the whole summer; this is when Bernie’s father (Eddie Marsan) lost the family business, then the family savings.

The real sorrow is not just in what happens, but in how Bernie sees it. All his life, he’s been the kid in the corner, forgotten, ignored, skipped over. Here, at long last, was his first shot at being important. But no. It will not happen. And if not now, then maybe not ever.

There are times when the audience may get angry at Bernie. Why must he internalize everything? Why must he view his father’s tragedies as an insult to him? But then, isn’t that what twelve-year-olds do? And better still, if a bar mitzvah is about becoming a man, what better time for Bernie to shed such selfishness?

Throughout all of this is a series of quirky characters: the brash uncle (Peter Serafinowicz), the blind rabbi (Richard Katz), the scatterbrained asthma doctor (Stephen Rea). This is the sort of film that should, by all accounts, crumble under such whimsy, and yet the performances are so spot-on in every regard - most notably from Helena Bonham Carter (as Bernie’s strong-willed mother), Marsan (the perfect sad sack dad, who sees too much of himself in Bernie), and Sulkin (a young performer in perfect tune with his character) - that we come to regard these folks as genuine people, not caricatures. Eccentricities may abound, but this will not distract from our honest affection and sympathy.

The script, by Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, keeps everything in order by providing a string of episodic wonders. This is a carefully tuned screenplay, delicately measured to deliver smiles when needed, tears when necessary. It’s a lovely string of bittersweet memories.

Most curious about “Sixty Six” is its director. Paul Weiland is remembered mainly for his work on such infamous clunkers as “Leonard Part 6,” “City Slickers II,” and last spring’s “Made of Honor.” What’s he doing here, churning out one of the year’s warmest, most pleasant delights? Doesn’t matter, I suppose. For in “Sixty Six,” Weiland redeems himself with the sort of brilliant little film that makes you smile just thinking about it, like I am right now. The story of Bernie Reubens’ best worst (or worst best?) summer ever is an absolute charmer.

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originally posted: 10/30/08 00:49:29
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10/31/08 tiffany pettey calling all hockey fans 4 stars
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  01-Aug-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 09-Mar-2009

  03-Nov-2006 (12A)

  15-Mar-2007 (M)

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