The Holocaust new wave continues with Tickling Leo, this time drawing on a little-known historical footnote as the haunted backdrop for an otherwise tepid contemporary drama. But while the events surrounding Rudolph Kasztner’s controversial project—the Hungarian Jewish leader negotiated with Eichmann to ship a select number of refugees to safety in Switzerland in exchange for supplies and silence about the true nature of the Shoah—offer just the sort of agonized moral choices that illuminate the horror of the Nazi genocide, they’re poorly matched by the film’s present-day tragicomedy. Some of the problem stems from writer-director Jeremy Davidson’s lack of facility with characterization (all the figures in the film are irritating without being interesting), some from his unimaginative staging (the film’s moments of high drama consist of a bland combination of screaming, cursing, and rapid cutting), and not a little from the screenplay’s odd and ineffective structure.
When Zak Pikler (the largely inexpressive Daniel Sauli) drives up to the Catskills with his girlfriend Delphina (Annie Parisse, bringing little intelligence to a role where at least some is required) to visit his semi-estranged and dementia-wracked father, Warren (Lawrence Pressman), the past quickly becomes present. Haunted by the ghosts of his WWII childhood, Warren alternates between moments of lucidity and paranoid fantasy, all the while cursing his own father, whom he blames for the death of his mother. Aided by the arrival of Warren’s “eccentric” brother and his girlfriend, eventually revelations start to come hot and heavy, and the true nature of the patriarch’s involvement with Kasztner comes to light.
Curiously, Davidson splits his reveals into two hot bursts with the first coming roughly halfway through the film and the second at the conclusion. The result is an oddly off-kilter narrative that wastes its initial momentum, moving into an extended bout of time-marking during its second act. Only at the conclusion—and the appearance of 93-year-old Eli Wallach, who, during his brief moment on screen, puts the other actors to shame—does the splotchy plotting finally cohere. But having followed such a tortuous path to get there, Davidson effects such a quick reconciliation—the warring factions of the Pikler family sit down to a nice meal at a Jewish retirement home, easily setting aside a half-century of animosity—that we begin to wonder what all the fuss was about anyway.
Although Tickling Leo is by no stretch of the imagination a successful film, it at least avoids much of the smug self-importance of other recent Holocaust pictures. While movies like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader play like smoothly calculated award-bait and focus their attention on gentile characters, Davidson’s film feels like a more personal project, a working out across the decades of the moral dilemmas faced by the victims themselves. Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-nominated atrocity is a much more polished work, but it asks us to view a concentration camp guard who oversaw the deaths of hundreds of Jews as a redeemed figure because she, um, learns to read Chekhov (!?). And the one survivor we do see turns out to be an Upper East Side rich bitch, so we needn’t feel too bad for her. In Tickling Leo, the filmmaker has enough sense to paint his own victims as anguished individuals constantly struggling to come to terms with their pasts. Still, that in itself is a pretty slim basis for recommending Davidson’s shoddy film.