People tend to remember the 1974 movie version of Mordecai Richler's novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz with fondness -- both for Richard Dreyfuss's energetic, raw performance and for the movie's inclusion of the world's weirdest bar mitzvah film.
The Happy Bar Mitzvah, Bernie film within the film is a consequence of the ever-ambitious Duddy's attempts to become a movie producer. He hires a pretentious drunken Englishman (played by Denholm Elliott), who makes his own art film, a busy montage of a nice middle-class family, a circumcision, Zulu dancers, blood splashing on a naked woman's breast, archival footage of Hitler and kamikaze pilots. The black humour feels a little heavy-handed now, but back in the mid-seventies, explosive irreverence was what comedy was all about.
Thirty years have passed since the cinematic release of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which, courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival's Film Circuit program, is being rereleased in limited runs in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, after having run for four days this week in Montreal. Regarded as a milestone in Canadian filmmaking, despite the imported stars, Duddy was the first all-Canadian-produced feature film picked up by a Hollywood studio (Paramount) for distribution.
A winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for Richler, it was supposed to be a cornerstone of a rich new Canadian film industry that never entirely materialized (though it's fun to note that Duddy's love interest, Micheline Lanctôt, plays a nurse in Denys Arcand's Oscar-winning film, The Barbarian Invasions).
How does Duddy stand the test of time? First, Dreyfuss at 27 was terrific. His portrait of Duddy -- scratching, twitching, cackling and bouncing on his tiptoes with energy and ideas -- is one of the top three or four performances of his career.
In fact, the cast is uniformly vivid. Jack Warden as Max, Duddy's taxi-driving, big-talking dad; Alan Rosenthal as Lenny, Duddy's medical-student brother who begins to prefer the company of gentiles; and Randy Quaid in one of his sweetest roles, as the young American, Virgil, who wants to start an international association for the advancement of epileptic people. Also unforgettable is Joe Silver as Farber, the amiable but disturbing scrap-metal worker who justifies unconscionable behaviour because "it's war" living in an anti-Semitic society.
Duddy, determined to be a "somebody," starts with waiting on tables, and quickly accelerates into a series of cons and angles. He gambles, forges a cheque, changes his name for business purposes, pretends to lose at pool to a rich WASP, carries drugs, and embezzles from his friends.
The movie isn't perfect. It feels relentlessly episodic, covering as much of the novel as possible by bouncing from one of Duddy's schemes to the next. The effect is to create a sense of rapid illustration rather than a considered study: Characters are met in passing, rather than established, and it's difficult to have a confident sense of how many days, weeks or months ensue.
But perhaps most interesting today is how time has not dulled its critical, satirical edge. We live in an officially assimilated world of television shows such as Seinfeld and Friends, where it's vague who's Jewish and who's not. Contemporary audiences will be struck by the film's bluntness about anti-Semitism, especially within the Jewish community. Duddy's socialist uncle, who owns a garment factory, calls him a "pushy Jew boy," and says, "People like you make me sick." Another colleague says, "It's little moneygrubbers like Kravitz that cause anti-Semitism."
But what's despised -- hustle, ingenuity, ruthlessness -- is also prized. Duddy's father Max idolizes a drug-dealing gangster, and Duddy is nothing if not a product of the contradictions of his own milieu. His father's poverty and dreams, the lack of a softening maternal influence, the condescension and coldness he meets from the privileged McGill University students -- it all adds to his zeal. When he pursues the dream of being someone, he leaves wounded people in his wake: the girlfriend he uses and dumps, the injured friend he robs, the beloved grandfather he insults.
One of the reasons the movie sticks with us is that the contradictions it shows can't be easily resolved: Duddy's an extraordinary creep, yet somehow we remember him with affection, his ugly side overcome by Dreyfuss's amazingly disarming performance.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz shows at Winnipeg's Cinemateque Theatre today. In Toronto, it will show at the Carlton Theatre (March 12-18) and the Sprockets International Film Festival for Children (April 20). In Vancouver, it will run at the Pacific Cinematheque from March 25 to 31.