The look of Let My People Go! at first suggests the cotton-candy aesthetic of the notorious SoHo eatery Elizabeth, circa 2008. The only thing missing is a tiny rhinestone tiara, to quote Frank Bruni, who also called it the place where Barbie might binge when Ken is getting her down. In Mikael Buch’s film, we might say our Barbie is girly Frenchman Reuben (Nicolas Maury), who lives a dreamy life with his Nordic Ken, Teemu (Jarkko Niemi), as a mailman in a picture-perfect Finnish village. Their unblemished reality turns sour when Reuben delivers a package full of money to a neighbor who refuses to take it. Stuck with the package, Reuben returns home with almost 200,000 Euros in his bag. His boyfriend accuses him of lying about the money’s provenance and kicks him out of the house, at which point Reuben is forced to go back to his dysfunctional Jewish family in Paris—and just in time for Passover.
French comedies don’t tend to translate well with American audiences who often miss their distinctly European reference points (Teemu’s Scandinavian mother calls her son a “reactionary monster” for suggesting that prostitution isn’t a job just like any other), and misread their purposefully hyperbolic style as actually gauche. The film is certainly prone to such misunderstandings: While Americans may relate to the humor derived from Jewish stereotypes, there’s a more authentic pleasure to be gained from the Frenchness of Reuben’s familial interactions (his mother is played by the always excellent Carmen Maura) and the awkwardness of his frail little body that only the Euro-initiated might recognize as particularly comical.
The film’s outrageous situations and over-the-top stock characters (the cartoonishly flamboyant gay, the wimpy father, the overbearing Jewish mother, and the hysteric sister) feel palatable when the visual style is also excessive. But Let My People Go!‘s aesthetic becomes progressively tamer, its colors increasingly matte, as Reuben leaves dreamy Finland for hostile France, which ends up robbing the film’s excess of its cool. Without a consistent stylistic playfulness to match the histrionic scenarios, the action often feels just plain silly.