Josh Freed’s “Five Weddings and a Felony” makes its world premiere at DOC NYC, New York’s Documentary Festival, that runs from November 3 – 9.
First-person diary films are usually a tricky proposition. When filmmakers turn the cameras on their personal lives, the results depend entirely on the creators’ appeal. Most people have a hard enough time casting themselves in the daily ritual of life without the interruption of the record button. There’s a certain amount of hubris necessary for anyone willing to repeatedly push that button, look directly into the lens, and smile. So when director Josh Freed’s documentary “Five Weddings and a Felony” opens with footage from his bar mitzvah, followed by his adult voiceover explaining his lifelong obsession with “My Dinner with André,” and then veers into his relationship troubles, it becomes quickly obvious that we’re stuck with him. His ubiquity is at once a strength and a weakness.
With his handy Flip camera constantly rolling, Freed demonstrates a filming obsession on par with Doug Block, whose squirm-worthy family portraits make it difficult to look away even when they border on invasiveness. Freed also invades his own story and drags a few people with him. Haplessly drifting from one seemingly well-meaning relationship to another, he launches on a long-term search for love — and for enough footage to complete his first movie. As he continually admires his friends’ abilities to find their mates and settle down, Freed begins to resemble a man-child of the Seth Rogen order, apparently incapable of anything save for instant gratification. As director and star, Freed evidently acknowledges his annoying behavior and casts himself as a comedic anti-hero.
That means that the early scenes of “Five Weddings and a Felony” can feel somewhat irksome, but Freed eventually finds his way to an intriguing scenario by establishing a few recurring characters. Unsurprisingly, most of them are women. After one girlfriend nudges him in the direction of filming his love life, he begins capturing pithy disputes, massive throwdowns and even pillow talk. He also nabs some free advice from his therapist-mother and interviews a former flame. However, his journey doesn’t really kick into gear until he falls for Paulina, the sister of a woman engaged to his old friend. With Paulina, Freed discovers someone willing to tolerate his possibly effeminate ways. Saving him from further aimless wanderings, she also saves the movie.
As the title implies, the structure of “Five Weddings and a Felony” revolves around Josh attending five weddings (none of which are his own) and encountering one felony (a friend, busted for peddling pot and forced to confront his fiancée about it). The appeal of these scenes comes from the ongoing Seinfeldian chatter that Freed and his friends constantly engage in. The result is a survey of his life.
Perhaps for this very reason, a colleague described the general tone of “Five Weddings and Felony” to me as “documentary mumblecore.” Like many of the entries associated with the second word in that makeshift term, Freed’s movie contains garrulous young white people endlessly babbling about relationship problems. That in itself calls into question the nature of the project: Freed’s status behind the camera makes it hard to accept his behavior in front of it, and he becomes more an object of resentment than he probably intends. “You’re an asshole because you’re selfish,” a friend tells him, acknowledging the recording device. Based on how we see him behave, it’s hard to disagree, but in Freed’s better moments, he retains enough charm to make the genre elements click. It’s a D.I.Y. relationship comedy set in the real world.
Then again, I never saw a correlation between the qualities defined as mumblecore and modern Jewish mannerisms. Freed revels in his Jewishness, at one point drawing a strained parallel between the philosophizing in “My Dinner with André” and the ancient Talmudic arguments he studied in high school. Paired with the equally whiny personalities that dominate Freed’s bubble, his feature amounts to a snapshot of urban twentysomething Jewish culture.
As it happens, through some of those same avenues, I’m in a serious grey area with my decision to review this movie. I don’t know Freed, but I know people that do, including one who makes a brief appearance as the documentarian’s old pal. That said, Freed’s reference points rarely hit home for me — that’s a world I left a long time ago — but it struck me that his camera goes almost too deep into a subculture of overeducated youth for anyone entirely removed from it to fully comprehend his particular blend of smarminess and self-doubt. His technique could be termed autobiographical ethnography: It probes the depths of young Manhattan Jewry and proves that, despite the nebbishy tics, they’re just like us.
For audiences more intrigued by the larger ideas pertaining to romantic confusion, the movie has enough inoffensive soul-searching to sustain the overall narrative. At times amusing but sometimes quite glib, its entertainment value often lies at odds with Freed’s charismatic pose. He’s so overly confident that the story automatically gains some analytical points when someone puts him down. Those moments are too rare, but I find it valuable to note that while I won’t call myself a major champion of “Five Weddings and a Felony,” I’m impressed by the extent to which it undoubtedly entertains both its subject and anyone in sync with his sensibilities.
criticWIRE grade: B
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this review gave the incorrect name to the subject Paulina. indieWIRE regrets the error