In 1998, Donny Drucker had the bar mitzvah to end all bar mitzvahs; a true party for the ages, and you’re lucky enough to have found the VHS tape of this night of debauchery and self discovery. Jonathan Kaufman’s Donny’s Bar Mitzvah invites you into a comedic coming-of-age nostalgia fest that combines the off-the-wall humor of a film like Top Secret with a barrage of sex and drug jokes that feel from another time.
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah bends reality toward the absurd, including one of the most unjustified cameos by Danny Trejo to ever cross the screen, while satirizing coming-of age-films of all kinds. The humor doesn’t always work, sometimes choosing the most extreme joke instead of the wittiest one. At times, this feels sweaty in its attempts to be the kind of boundary-pushing comedy one might associate with yesteryear; however, the film manages to make enough surreal narrative choices to be interesting throughout. Yes, Donny’s Bar Mitzvah might have benefited from even one moment of sincerity of the kind it was mocking, but it doesn’t fall short of entertainment.
The first thought I had watching Donny’s Bar Mitzvah was perhaps distracting: how important is the nostalgia aspect to this film? The gimmick is laid out immediately: you are watching the professionally shot and produced VHS record of Donny Drucker’s celebration of turning 13. However, there is little about the setting, attitude, or aesthetic of the film that relies on 1998. While there are visual effects to suggest the gimmick is real, they are unimpressive and at times annoying. In fact, the entire conceit really only adds one thing to the overall filmmaking, and that is the camera work. In some moments, the camera seems to be a commentary on the events of the film. Not often, but occasionally to great effect, our visual rests on or focuses in on someone for a reaction shot or a surprising reveal, and these movements suggest a person in the moment making choices. There are a few moments where this is employed skillfully, but never to such an extent to make the gimmick feel consistent. This movie could just tell the story without all this artifice.
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah really walks the line when it comes to the subject of the film’s humor. Jokes about drugs, sex, misogyny, and homophobia populate the script, and often the vibe is frenetic with its barrage of deranged and possibly offensive humor. It is difficult for me to make anything like a moral judgment of these choices; it didn’t seem to me that the film was picking on anyone, or making a joke of anyone’s identity necessarily. However, as a cishet male, am I the best judge of that? No. There is a chance this film might cross the line for some, either in its language or in its humor, even if it never did so for me. Not all of the jokes land. There are some great lines and insane choices here, but not all of the scandalizing humor of it worked for me. I don’t want to bore you with parsing out the jokes that did and did not land, but I do think the extent to which mileage may very is the way you feel about humor in which sexuality and drugs are not just the joke but the punchline as well.
While the film does have a lot of very extreme humor of the blue variety, it often crosses over the lines of reality in telling those jokes in the vein of Airplane, Top Secret, or even the recent film Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. In these moments, when the humor either bent reality or subverted expectations, or when the joke was the surreal situation itself, the movie really soared. For every reference to dicks or ejaculate that might seem stale, there was a moment when the reality of the narrative itself bent in such a way to keep me totally fascinated. I suspect, because of the wit and insight of some of these satirical choices, that there is more going on to the film than simply an attempt to throw awful things at the audience. The depth of the depravity itself is, I suspect, a kind of surreal commentary. It is one, though, that I am not sure always works, so perhaps it’s my wishful thinking to see something more there. In either case, there’s a lot of wit in some of the silliness and strangeness of the movie and it was enough to keep me interested.
One might watch Donny’s Bar Mitzvah and feel like the entire production is a bit sweaty, that it’s trying more than is needed to be funny. This is exacerbated by the lack of narrative connection to any of the characters. The film uses the tropes of a coming-of-age film as grist for humor, but there is no one in the narrative we particularly care about. In fact, one could argue that there’s no real story to tell. Things happen, and some characters find themselves in a different place than when they began the party, but nothing has any particular weight to it because all of these characters barely exist. They are caricatures that serve a role, but none are particularly real and there is no humanity to identify with. That in and of itself is not a huge issue; I love a film like Top Secret and one would be hard pressed to say they felt connected to Val Kilmer’s character in that movie. It’s only that between the strangeness of it all and the constant assault of raunchiness, a simple slice of sentimentality might have added a needed counterbalance to make the film more relatable. There is enough here that many will still find the film interesting, and if an over-the-top, silly film that includes a fair share of jokes about anal and cocaine is right up your alley, you will likely love this. I think there is a segment of the potential audience for this film that might be wishing for a more vulnerable or human character to the film to connect with.
Donny’s Bar Mitzvah might be too raw for some, but its intelligent bending of narrative rules and its satire of coming-of-age films will appeal to many. The central conceit of the film feels false, and it would benefit from a more humane core, but I think for those who enjoy humor that pushes the boundaries, there’s a lot here to enjoy.