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Interfaith Romance Sparks Serious Couch, Bed Time

The central dynamic of mixed-faith romantic comedies, as every Woody Allen fan knows, is a wild and crazy Jewish character acting as a liberating catalyst for his (or her) uptight, non-Jewish lover.

The winning romantic comedy Ira & Abby flips that tired convention on its head right out of the gate. Then this smart, stealthy movie goes one better, by demolishing the happily-ever-after, marriage-is-bliss fantasy that Hollywood has peddled for decades.

In other words, this tart New York story is the rare romantic comedy that provides a dollop of truth, wisdom and insight along with the requisite gags and absurdities.

The briskly paced movie is written by and stars the Jewish actress Jennifer Westfeldt (Kissing Jessica Stein and “Notes From the Underbelly”) as a non-Jewish health-club saleswoman of dubious ability.

Abby’s got unbelievable interpersonal skills, and she instantly converts every prospect into a best friend. But she gives every new pal free passes or advice that involves anything but buying a membership. She doesn’t hesitate to close the sale, however, when Ira (Chris Messina) stumbles into the club in a funk.

By the end of an afternoon-long interview that includes a test of their sexual compatibility, Abby has persuaded him to marry her.

Ira’s uncharacteristically spontaneous behavior, coming a mere hours after his shrink booted him off the couch after 12 years of essentially no progress, is an act of elation, desperation and rebellion.

His parents (played with acute reserve by Judith Light and Robert Klein) are both analysts--not therapists, as we’re reminded any number of times--who are decidedly uncomfortable with quick decisions. Ira’s mother is especially upset that he’s racing into marriage when he has spent years neurotically refusing to make a commitment to his Jewish girlfriend Lea (Maddie Corman).

On the other hand, Abby’s parents (Fred Willard and Frances Conroy), who embody a live-and-let-live attitude, couldn’t be happier. The near-instantaneous wedding is a smash, and the couple embarks on a life of adventure and companionship that (per one of Abby’s pre-nup requests, which Ira happily accepts) includes daily sex.

In practically every other romantic comedy, the couple faces a parade of hurdles before they get together at the end. Ira & Abby brings its lovers together in double-time with barely a cloud in sight--and then opens the floodgates.

Ira and Abby are in their 30s, and well past the age of naïve optimism. But they both have trust issues that manifest themselves as insecurity and jealousy, and make a hash of their relationship. A wonderfully humorous and warm scene where Abby defuses a robbery on the subway signals Ira’s difficulty with accepting Abby’s exuberant personality and sharing it with the whole world. (Westfeldt plays Abby with a Jewish slant in that scene, which only makes it funnier.)

At the same time, the marriages of their respective parents are not as solid and joyous as we may initially have judged. This being New York, everyone is soon seeing a pricy therapist. As marital discord moves to the foreground, the tone darkens, the laughs become scarcer and the stakes get higher.

Ira & Abby taps into some delicate emotional territory with grace and honesty, before reverting to straightforward comedy. It works largely because the film is uncommonly generous to every character, even Ira’s ex.

Everyone, that is, except the various therapists, whose foibles and narrow perspectives are neatly satirized in a group session where everyone gathers in a circle to clear the air.

The matter of how to preserve passion and vitality in a long marriage is not usually broached in romantic comedies. Ira & Abby doesn’t reach any conclusions except to remind that it’s a question that applies equally to Jewish, non-Jewish and interfaith unions.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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