To call “The Wedding Plan” a romantic comedy, as the film’s press materials do, may make sense on a marketing level: Its high-concept plot evokes the frothy, star-driven studio vehicles of yore that are now more likely to be made as a cable movie or indie film.
In reality, that categorization is a bit simplistic for a movie as unique, idiosyncratic and spiritual as this second feature from American Israeli writer-director Rama Burshtein, an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose acclaimed 2012 debut film, “Fill the Void,” offered a much darker vision of faith and marriage.
“The Wedding Plan” is not your mother’s rom-com, even if it may start out that way. Michal (Noa Koler) is a 32-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman in Jerusalem whose fiancé, Gidi (Erez Drigues), announces that he doesn’t love her. Crushed, yet bound and determined to get married anyway, the lonely Michal decides to keep her planned wedding date (22 days away, on the eighth night of Hanukkah); pay up with Shimi (Amos Tamam), the bemused and dashing owner of the banquet hall she’s already reserved; send out invitations, and put her faith in God that a suitable groom will appear in time.
It’s a seemingly kooky, far-fetched premise with an initial air of inevitability. But once this measured film kicks in, predictability falls away, sending Michal on a twisty, awkward, darkly humorous and emotionally raw march toward the chuppah. Did I mention the atypical Michal runs a mobile petting zoo and knows her way around snakes?
Armed with the aid of professional matchmakers and the support of dreadlocked bestie and co-worker Feigi (Ronny Merhavi), erratically married sister (Dafi Alpern), anxious mother (Irit Sheleg) and a sweet, wheelchair-using friend with ALS, Michal sets out to find Mr. Right, or some reasonable facsimile, and fulfill her “Hanukkah miracle.”
Save that Michal’s blind dates are arranged with men who are members of the Breslov sect of Hasidism, the bride-to-be’s main prerequisite, these meet-ups are as quirky and painful as any found in more traditional rom-coms, much less in real life. They include a man convinced it’s best not to look at Michal; a deaf, but blunt fellow, whose handsome interpreter might have been a better fit; and a cocky guy put off by what he aptly dubs Michal’s “nutty energy.”
However, during a pilgrimage to Ukraine to visit the grave of Breslov Hasidism founder Rabbi Nachman, an emotionally wrecked Michal encounters, in one of the odder movie meet-cutes, a popular Israeli singer named Yoss (Oz Zehavi), who’s in the country for a concert. Yoss, with his lean, sexy good looks, killer smile and decidedly “non-religious” clothes and attitude, screams inappropriate for Michal, who can’t believe this cool dude actually seems into her. As with much else here, fate will take its course but not in ways that we — or Michal — may think.
Koler’s immersive, go-for-it performance, Burshtein’s effective, often affecting reliance on intimate framing and vivid reaction shots, the enjoyable, well-drawn supporting characters, plus a lived-in depiction of religion and culture, add up to make “The Wedding Plan” an unusually involving, you-are-there experience. At its heart, the film is a kind of mystical fairy tale whose messages of belief, endurance, family and belonging transcend its memorably specific people and setting.