EMOTIONAL ARITHMATIC Directed by Paolo Barzman, written by Jefferson Lewis after the novel by Matt Cohen, with Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Christopher Plummer, Roy Dupuis and Max von Sydow. A Seville Pictures release. 99 minutes. Opens Friday (April 18). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NN
Based on Matt Cohen’s novel about three Holocaust survivors who reunite in Quebec 40 years after the end of the war, Emotional Arithmetic is one of those deeply felt, dramatically inert dramas that attracts a marvellous coterie of actors and puts them through paces we’ve seen a hundred times before.
Susan Sarandon plays Melanie, an American still grappling with the time she spent in the French transit camp of Drancy, where Jews awaited shipment to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. She was just a child then, as was Christopher, played as an adult by Gabriel Byrne. Max von Sydow is Jakob, the man who protected them and for his efforts ended up in Auschwitz – and, after surviving that, in a Russian gulag.
When Jakob and Christopher come to Melanie’s home for a visit, all sorts of old feelings are stirred up, leaving Melanie’s husband (Christopher Plummer) and their adult son (Roy Dupuis, spectacularly miscast) on the outside of this complicated reunion.
For all the star power on tap, the film never really comes to life. Director Paolo Barzman and screenwriter Jefferson Lewis seem unable to organize the second half of the story in a dramatically satisfying way, underplaying the import of certain scenes and overselling others.
The actors do their best with small moments. Plummer, in particular, shines as an academic whose patience with his self-absorbed wife is just this side of infinite. But we never understand what brought them together in the first place.
There’s a moment when Melanie refers to herself as a “second-tier survivor,” having avoided a one-way ticket to the death camps by the slimmest of margins but still traumatized by the experience.
That’s a pretty good way to sum up the movie, too. It’s a second-tier Holocaust picture. It’s not unsuccessful, on its own terms, but it’s hard to get too worked up about it.