Meat the family

“The Barbecue People” centers around a star-crossed family cookout in which everyone suffers a breakdown. Even the table.

As Iraqi Jewish patriarch Haim’s specially seasoned marinated beef sizzles under the hot Ashdod sun, the aging musician can only watch as the bizarre threads of his family’s life snare together in a tight, messy knot.

Writer/directors David Ofek and Joseph Madmony use the 1988 Israeli Independence Day barbecue as the centerpiece of the film, tracing and re-tracing the family’s travails through a series of interlocking, Billy Pilgrim-like flashbacks leading up to their cookout in the sun.

Cinematically, Ofek and Madmony veer far off the beaten path with their nonlinear storytelling and a series of jarring, documentary-style interviews with the film’s incidental characters. While not every gamble pays off, most do in this engrossing, beautifully acted dark comedy. The film shows Wednesday, Jan. 26 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and is sponsored by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and The Israel Center.

At the heart of it all is Haim (Victor Ida), a smoldering ball of energy somewhat resembling a Mizrachi Regis Philbin, with a jaw-dropping forelock right out of Superman comic books sitting atop his head (“Like a rooster! Cock-a-doodle-doo!” he tells a bemused maid).

The film’s labyrinthine plot line is set into motion when a wealthy businessman claims that he, and not Haim, was the famous “player” — an Iraqi musician illustrious in the Zionist underground for smuggling arms within his kanoon, a stringed instrument resembling a gargantuan autoharp.

Enraged, Haim hops a flight to New York with hopes of tracking down a fellow member of the Zionist underground to corroborate his story. Along the way he finds himself duking it out with muggers, in the arms of amorous maids and cohabitating with lions, tigers and bears when his request to visit “The Bronx Jew” is misheard.

Meanwhile, after stealing Haim’s past, Ezra the wealthy businessman turns his eye on the real object of his desire — Haim’s wife, Na’ima. Haim’s son, Eli, finds himself persona non grata in the Big Apple after the actress in the trashy soft-core porn film he wrote and directed turns up in the morgue. And Haim’s sullen daughter, Tikva (Dana Ivgi, who ought to adorn Israeli tourism posters), learns that the highlight of her first few months in the army is a pregnancy.

If the above reads like a synopsis of “Days of Our Israeli Lives,” worry not. The film is bolstered by the subtle, nuanced performances of Ida, Raymonde Abecassis (Na’ima) and Israel Bright (Eli — and his voluminous, Randy Moss-like afro, which deserves a billing of its own).

Meanwhile, the audience feels a bit of a thrill as each successive story sheds new light on the idiosyncrasies of the previous tale: Why was Na’ima wearing such a nice dress to the airport? Why are those odd men tailing Eli? Why is Tikva’s discovery of an old lighter in the sand so important? Like the shaking of a Boggle board, all of the cubes eventually fall into place.

In tying together all of the family’s loose ends, Ofek and Madmony deign to repeat scenes two, three or even four times, often shot from a different characters’ point of view. (In this way, we are treated to Tikva’s bout of morning sickness on multiple occasions, creating the lengthiest cinematic homage to reverse peristalsis since “The Exorcist.”)

While treading and re-treading a scene worked to great effect in films such as “Memento” and “Pulp Fiction,” many nonlinear filmmakers tend to get, for lack of a better term, too cute for their own good. And that does happen here. Bolstered by the talented cast, the story functioned perfectly well when driven solely by familial tension; throwing in lunatic porn, murders and conspiracies seems unnecessary, even if the clips from Eli’s Grade-D shlockfest are as wickedly entertaining as one would expect of a film entitled “Attack of the Super Hooker.”

Still, like Haim’s specially seasoned marinated beef, this film is, in the end, well done.

“The Barbecue People” shows 7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, S.F. Tickets: $6-$7. Information: (415) 978-2787.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.