Price above Rubies, A (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

A Price Above Rubies is writer/director Boaz Yakin's follow-up to his highly-regarded, tautly-paced 1994 picture, Fresh. Sadly, little of the energy and intelligence of the earlier film is evident in this, an overwrought melodrama populated by stereotypes and featuring an improbable storyline that relies upon a string of coincidences. Ostensibly, A Price Above Rubies details the struggle of one woman to throw off the shackles of a conservative society, but the manner in which Yakin approaches this theme is preachy, pedantic, and predictable.

The woman is Sonia (Renee Zellweger) and the society is New York City's Hasidic Jewish community. She is a good woman married to Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald), a highly-respected scholar. From the beginning, Sonia is aware that there is something missing from her matrimonial union. Everything that she finds erotic, he finds indecent. To him, sex is exclusively for procreation, not for quenching "the fire" that burns inside of his wife. Any observer can see than Sonia is profoundly unhappy, but only her brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), offers a solution.

In addition to giving Sonia work procuring jewelry for his underground business, Sender enters into a sexual relationship with her (that, apparently, is the price she pays for getting the job). As unwanted as she finds his rough advances, Sonia is liberated through this act of unfaithfulness. Sender rationalizes his actions by saying that, while everyone sins, "it's the quality of our sins which sets us apart." He obviously considers his violations to be somewhere in the upper echelon. At any rate, as a result of the new facets of life shown to her by Sender, Sonia begins to yearn for the kind of freedom that she cannot find within the Hasidic community. Yet she realizes that if she attempts to leave Mendel, she will lose everything. Meanwhile, she finds herself battling an attraction to a promising young jewelry maker (Allen Payne), which further complicates her situation. To help her with her difficult decisions, Sonia receives advice from two unusual agents: a prophetic bag lady (Kathleen Chalfant) and the ghost of her brother (Shelton Dane), who died as a child.

I needn't say which path Sonia chooses, because, like almost everything else in this movie, it's easily guessed. One of the most disappointing aspects of A Price Above Rubies is its lack of originality - right down to the too-pat conclusion. The premise has a great deal of potential, little of which is realized. Instead of fashioning a gallery of interesting, multi-dimensional characters around Sonia, Yakin is content to plunder a bag of types. Most of the individuals fall into the traditional, morally-upright, inflexible mold of those who stifle creativity in the name of conformity. With the exceptions of Sonia, the old Rebbe (John Randolph), and his wife (Kim Hunter), no one within the community exhibits even the slightest trace of humanity.

That's only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, however. One of the most potentially fascinating elements of A Price Above Rubies is the opportunity it affords for an exploration of the Hasidic society. What Yakin gives us, however, is disappointingly superficial, and rivals the banality offered by Sidney Lumet in A Stranger Among Us, a horribly misguided mystery about a murder investigation in the Hasidic community. Any film that attempts to delve beneath the surface of a closed society will face an inevitable likening to Peter Weir's Witness, which painted the Amish with a rich, varied brush. A Price Above Rubies makes the not- dissimilar Hasidic people look cartoonish by comparison.

Yakin's casting choices are also questionable. While it's easy enough to accept Christopher Eccleston (the title character in 1996's Jude) as a Hasidic bad boy and Julianna Margulies as a defender of the community, those two are only supporting players; the problems are with the leads. Glenn Fitzgerald is flat and unconvincing as Mendel. There's no passion or power in this performance; it's a dull, lifeless rendering of a man who is supposed to be deeply devout. I'm not suggesting that Fitzgerald should have gone down the route taken by Robert Duvall in The Apostle, but a little more energy might have made Mendel seem less like a writer's construct and more like an individual.

The flaw in Renee Zellweger's performance is harder to define. She is a talented actress who has shown range in her past roles (such as Jerry Maguire and The Whole Wide World), but she is miscast as Sonia. Despite imbuing her character with spirit and emotion, there's something fundamentally "off" in her attempts to portray a Hasidic woman. Regardless of how hard she tries, she doesn't fit the part. There are numerous instances when Zellweger's intonations and accent are all wrong. It's the little things that are problematic.

A Price Above Rubies isn't a complete disaster. Despite its obvious faults, the melodrama is never boring. My reservations about Zellweger's performance don't alter the fact that Sonia is an appealing protagonist, and it's not hard to identify with her struggles. Unlike many of the other characters in the film, she is well-developed, although certain facets of her personality are built through cliches. So, although A Price Above Rubies can be described as "watchable," it stands as a mediocre exploration of one woman's attempts to express her individuality in a closed society.

Price above Rubies, A (United States, 1998)

Director: Boaz Yakin
Cast: Renee Zellweger, Christopher Eccleston, Glenn Fitzgerald, Allen Payne, Julianna Margulies
Screenplay: Boaz Yakin
Cinematography: Adam Holender
Music: Lesley Barber
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 1998-03-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1