The comedic potential of Daniel Burman’s The Tenth Man revolves around the return of Ariel (Alan Sabbagh), a stuffy economist living in New York City, to the Jewish district of his youth in Buenos Aires. The opening scene in Ariel’s office succinctly communicates this dynamic as Ariel speaks with his mother about buying a specific pair of shoes for his father, who demands they have Velcro instead of laces. Burman places Ariel toward the back of the frame, allowing the character’s confusion over such specific details to complement the visual presentation of a man whose financial pursuits have broken his ties to a past predicated on charity and small-town friendship. In the end, the film boils down to a simplistic reconciliation between Ariel and his father, Usher (Usher Barilka), with a final scene that not only excuses Ariel’s thoroughly entitled demeanor, but also celebrates it through a falsely triumphant act that finds self-congratulation masquerading as self-acceptance.
Once Ariel arrives in Once, the district of his adolescence, he’s met with a chaotic and confusing scene involving Usher’s associates, who scramble around him with heretofore unstated motivations. Through a flashback to Ariel’s childhood, it’s understood that Usher became a philanthropist to help the needy of his neighborhood, creating a foundation to provide medicine and food to poor children and families. Burman allows these details to form through context clues rather than having characters spell it out, so that Ariel, an oft-silent participant, passively perceives the machinations of Usher’s foundation. Yet Burman finds no singularity for Ariel, whose schlubby appearance and non-charismatic demeanor suggest less an everyman protagonist than an underdeveloped figure of comparison between two mindsets. Given that Usher remains only a voice and stays off screen until late into the film, Ariel’s flat presence and inaction is asked to uphold a narrative that contains few disruptions or challenges to his passivity.
Nor is Once particularly fleshed out as a district beyond a handful of one-note figures taken directly from the “quirk” handbook. That includes Marcelito (Uriel Rubin), a hospital patient who enthusiastically accepts a pair of unwanted shoes, Lucho (Fabian Rosenthal), a storeowner who remembers Ariel from way back, and a group of rabbis who insist that Ariel go swimming with them. Moreover, Ariel develops a crush on Eva (Julieta Zylberberg), a woman working for Usher’s foundation who has little purpose or identity beyond being an object of Ariel’s affection. In fact, as Ariel blankly stares at her while helping clean up a recently deceased man’s apartment, the film cements its lack of an incisive perspective on Ariel at all beyond his predilections for watching Eva. Later on, he even becomes hot and bothered while watching Eva strip to bathe in the mikvah.
As films about dopey dudes finding love go, The Tenth Man is too modest for its own good, and lacks a critical examination of Once’s community that could delve beneath the surface of its characters’ anxieties. Ariel’s secular life in Manhattan, including an unseen girlfriend who calls on occasion to ask why he didn’t want her to tag along to Buenos Aries, is left off screen aside from the opening moments. If Usher’s objections to Ariel’s behaviors exist along religious lines, Burman never pushes the envelope or even has characters engage in any form of verbal dispute about religion. Instead, Ariel recognizes a hollow form of compromise (and wish-fulfillment) in embracing the ethos of his past while ensuring he’ll soon return to New York. As the film’s original title, The King of Once, suggests, Ariel gets to rue and rule his past simultaneously and without any bitter complications. To quote the tongue-twisting line from the Coens’ Hail Caesar!: Would that it were so simple.