Family Prayers: Scott Rosenfelt’s Modest Debut

Producer Scott Rosenfelt makes his directorial feature debut with Family Prayers, a small, modest, well-intentioned coming-of-age story that is full of heart, if not ingenuity.

This amiable family melodrama is well-acted, but the familiarity of its concept, undistinguished direction, and mediocre production values will deter the more commercial audiences. Family Prayers, slated for a February release in New York, should enjoy a longer life on homevideo than in theatrical markets.

Set in Los Angeles, in 1969, the tale depicts the effects of the Jacobs’ family breakup on their son Andrew (Tzvi Ratner-Stauber), a sensitive adolescent who becomes a victim of his parents’ fights and squabbles. Andrew’s father, Martin (Joe Mantegna), an irresponsible compulsive gambler, promises his wife Rita (Anne Archer) to reform, but he breaks one vow after another. Worried and upset, Andrew’s main ambition is to keep his parents together at all costs. In one particularly strong scene, set at a neighborhood party, he literally grabs his mother’s hand, then takes her to his estranged father.

Far behind in Hebrew studies for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, Andrew’s cantor (Allen Garfield in cameo role) sends him to Dan (Paul Reiser), a young tutor. Through Dan, Andrew becomes aware of the “outside” world, specifically the Vietnam War. Some of the film’s more interesting interactions occur between Dan and Andrew, as the countercultural hippie teaches his student more about the meaning of adulthood than the particular prayers needed for his Bar Mitzvah.

Ginsberg’s writing is personal and often heartfelt, but it lacks depth and subtlety. The text consists of such lines as Dan telling Andrew, “Girls are good, and some girls are great.” Scripter spells out too explicitly the lessons about maturity and commitment that Andrew needs to learn. He has also devised a girlfriend for Andrew, Nina (Shiri Appleby), who speaks in cutesy one-liners, as if she were a character in a TV sitcom.

Regrettably, the pleasant film suffers from the draggy, unmodulated direction of Rosenfelt, who shows in his debut little sense for narrative flow or rhythm. Moreover, lenser Jeff Jur’s flat visual style gives the film an old-fashioned look.

Good acting, however, makes up for the unsatisfying tech credits. Joe Mantegna, who has excelled in playing many lowlife (usually Italian) characters, proves that he can be just as persuasive when playing the quieter role of a troubled Jewish father. As his wife Rita, Anne Archer shows more energy and vitality than in her recent films, though she is beginning to be dangerously typecast as the long-suffering wife. Even more impressive is newcomer Tzvi Ratner-Stauber’ truly charismatic performance as the family’s mediator; appearing in almost every scene, he acquits himself as a pro.

The only exception to the film’s uniformly accomplished acting is the excessively theatrical Patti LuPone as the pragmatic (and a bit vulgar) Aunt Nan. LuPone’e role is too broadly conceived and executed; her scenes with Archer, urging her to leave her husband, don’t ring true.

Family Prayers refrains from being overly sentimental, a recurrent threat for such material, and gains additional poignancy from the parallels it draws between Andrew’s personal and the country’s political maturation during the Vietnam era.