Believe it or not, writer-director Jay Jonroy's David and Layla is not the first Jew-meets-Muslim version of Romeo and Juliet to come along. Last year's short subject Oscar went to the insipid but similarly themed West Bank Story. Still, this romantic comedy about a Manhattan Hebe and Kurdish refugee has the distinction of blending sex-farce subject matter with unexpected flashes of insightful political commentary. Somewhere, beneath its hammy acting, neurotic bawdiness and poorly executed slapstick, there's a decent movie screaming to get out.
David (David Moscow), the host of local cable show Sex and Happiness, becomes smitten with the mysterious and exotic Layla (Shiva Rose), a Kurdish Muslim refugee whose visa has expired. Unfulfilled in his relationship with a high-strung girlfriend (Callie Thorne), he desperately pursues Layla, despite the hysteria it causes in his Jewish family and the suspicions of her Islamic guardians. As the two lovers get to know each other better, the clash of cultures and religions raises its ugly well, not ugly ... let's say inconvenient head.
It's a pretty solid concept but Jonroy bogs down the first half of his film with excruciatingly broad humor and long stretches of clichéd dialogue and characterizations. It's the kind of film where David's shrink is a German-accented Freud wannabe, his limp-wristed younger brother (Will Janowitz who played Finn on The Sopranos) pouts and vamps at every opportunity, and many of the supporting actors mug for the camera. While the sex stuff is all pretty tame, it tries way too hard to be "naughty." Borscht Belt vignettes about penile dysfunction, testicular torsion and vasectomy threaten to kill the story long before it gets started.
The film's lead actors are attractive and competent, but neither character is particularly developed, and so we're never quite sure why these two people are in love in the first place. There's little chemistry between them, and their romance seems to be just another plot device.
Still, once David and Layla begin to navigate the obstacles in their cultures and beliefs, complex issues of identity, politics and history begin to emerge. These momentary exchanges turn out to be more complex than the people who utter them, and, against all expectations, the movie engages for its final 30 minutes. It all culminates with a nicely choreographed wedding that almost comes undone with a pot-laced baklava joke.
Though this real-life story sells itself as a romantic comedy, David And Layla seems to understand little of the heart and far more of the politics that stand in love's way.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].