Jewish Parisians are all charm in Grand Role

If you ever wondered if there are any circumstances where lying might be a mitzvah, “The Grand Role” offers a touching and amusing answer.

French director Steve Suissa’s dual salute to struggling actors and true love is set in Paris’ traditionally Jewish Marais district, and is populated almost entirely by Jewish characters. Whether they like it or not, it seems their identity is always part of the conversation.

It’s explicitly so in the film’s opening scene, set in a brasserie where an important theater director jests about Jewish dietary restrictions. The Jewish actor Maurice (Stéphane Freiss) tacitly accepts the teasing, mostly because he covets a part in the maestro’s next production.

Maurice’s feisty wife has no such compunction. Perla (Bérénice Bojo) rebukes the director with a couple of pithy sentences, ending the conversation and most likely Maurice’s shot. He’s piqued at first, but their love is deeper and longer lasting than any one gig — as we discern from their affectionate drive home with the top down and a lushly romantic pop song on the soundtrack.

“The Grand Role,” which had a brief theatrical release in New York in May and played numerous Jewish film festivals around the country under its French title, “Le Grand Role,” is now out on DVD. It is an engaging and enjoyable film that offers an unusually lighthearted view of French Jews.

That is, until bad news arrives around the 45-minute mark.

Maurice and his struggling-actor pals, all Jews in their late 30s or early 40s, pay the bills by dubbing the French voices in foreign movies and TV shows while hoping their big break is around the corner.

A Jewish American filmmaker, Rudolph Grishenberg, arrives in Paris to cast and shoot a Yiddish-language version of “The Merchant of Venice.” It’s an absurd idea, of course, but no less ridiculous than the guys’ scheme to attend Ma’ariv services in order to accidentally meet (and impress) the great Grishenberg.

Although Maurice’s friends are a bumbling bunch, they are remarkably loyal. They all score auditions for Shylock, but Maurice (who speaks a bissel Yiddish) is the only one to be asked back. But instead of professional jealousy and backbiting, they display the enthusiasm and camaraderie of Little Leaguers.

It is this insistence — that love and friendship trump success — that gives “The Grand Role” its sweetness. It also buoys the film when the aforementioned calamity arrives.

Maurice impresses the tall, imposing Grishenberg, deliciously played by Marin County’s Peter Coyote. The director is clearly intended to be Steven Spielberg, not because we recognize any of his mannerisms but because no other filmmaker has the clout to finance a Yiddish-language movie.

Improbably, Maurice gets the part. Less improbably, Maurice’s agent calls an hour later to say that the big-name actor who Grishenberg wanted all along suddenly became available — and Maurice is history.

Alas, Perla has much worse news to report. So, to keep her spirits up, Maurice only tells her the first half of his story. And his friends step up to help maintain the charade that Maurice is the lead in a Grishenberg film.

Maurice’s great role of the title, ironically, isn’t for the stage or screen but for the benefit of his beloved wife.

The screenplay, which is adapted from Daniel Goldenberg’s novel, misses several comic opportunities and some of the banter could be sharper. Alas, Billy Wilder was unavailable to do a polish. Nonetheless, “The Grand Role” carries the day as a warm-hearted buddy movie and a poignant love story.

It also succeeds, more importantly, as a portrait of contemporary Parisian Jews who don’t shy from their identity.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.