In this unlikely but delightful buddy picture, an old man and his young friend pursue someone they suspect of being a Nazi in hiding.
Mr. Kaplan (TJFF Review)
True story: I was named after the Archangel Michael. When I was born, a name for me had yet to be decided upon. My grandmother, noting my birthdate was the archangel’s feast day, suggested “Michael.” It stuck. It hasn’t gotten me any free lunches or anything, but when you spend your entire childhood in a parochial school system and you are named after the angel who took out Satan in the Book of Revelation, you walk the halls with a certain swagger.
In Mr. Kaplan, a delightful comedy making its Toronto premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, the titular character’s first name is Jacob. He was named after Jacob of the Old Testament; that’s the same Jacob who wrestled with a being many believe to be the Angel of God, and whose name was changed by God from Jacob to Israel.
Mr. Kaplan (Héctor Noguera), now 80 years old, has carried with him the weight of his name throughout his life, and he feels he has never lived up to it. Despite his 50-year marriage and a beautiful family, that weight is never heavier than when he finds himself without a driver’s license due to the parking lot fender-bender that led to the eye exam that exposed his vision problems. This namesake of a religious hero becomes reduced to being dependent on rides from family, or from family friend and disgraced ex-cop Wilson (Néstor Guzzini) … until Mr. Kaplan has an epiphany.
His granddaughter mentions during an innocuous conversation an old German man who owns a bar; she and her friends refer to that man as “The Nazi.” Kaplan dismisses it at first, but after a news report reveals that another Nazi was captured elsewhere in the world, Kaplan turns amateur sleuth and starts following the bar owner. Without a license, Kaplan must rely on Wilson to help him get around. His young friend and driver, having formal police training, assists Kaplan on his quest to capture the German and transport him from Uruguay (where they live) to Israel, where he will stand trial for his war crimes.
The last thing I expected from Mr. Kaplan, the funny creation of writer/director Álvaro Brechner, was a buddy picture. Then, once I realized I was getting a buddy picture, I certainly didn’t expect to get one with terrific humor and considerable emotional depth.
The film starts out as a humorous mediation on unfulfilled destiny and an assessment of self-worth, with a wonderful opening sequence. Kaplan and his wife arrive at a wedding reception where their names are not on the guest list, so they are denied entry. It turns out to have been a simple oversight, but it reduces them, and more so him as the alpha male. Already in a fragile mental state, Kaplan overreacts to a conversation that includes his admission that he cannot swim, so he attempts to jump off the high diving board at the country club where the reception is taking place. The whole sequence not only smartly and funnily sets up Kaplan’s driver’s license conflict, it’s also a great illustration of how director Brechner understands visual humor.
As the film progresses, Brechner continues to show his directorial prowess for comedy. He uses certain zooming and panning devices that have been used in countless buddy action pictures and thrillers before, but never to be taken seriously here. Because Kaplan is a man who is overreaching to begin with, the gag is that the shots are overreaching too. They work every time.
Then, as Wilson becomes more involved, and the investigation is less about him just driving and more about him actively participating, a backstory on him is offered that adds great pathos to his character. It also gives Wilson more than just a sidekick role; the character has real skin in the game, and the film expands beyond being about Kaplan’s destiny fulfillment mission and includes Wilson’s shot at redemption. The laughs continue throughout as both men have familial ramifications for their actions, and just about every bit of it is entertaining.
The third act caps off this wonderful film with a twist I didn’t see coming, yet one that never feels contrived.
There are no bad performances in Mr. Kaplan, but the film is unquestionably owned by Noguera, with a great turn by Guzzini. Nidia Telles as Kaplan’s wife and Nuria Fló as his granddaughter also give fine performances.
I know what it’s like to be named after a major biblical player, and while it hasn’t weighed on me the way it has weighed on Jacob Kaplan, well, let’s just say I’m not 80 yet. I suppose it could still happen.