Through The Wall, it was called back in Israel. Honestly, The Wedding Plan fits it better. What else would you name a romantic comedy about a woman who decides to stick to her wedding date, even after her fiancé up and leaves her? What better title could you find for a film about a bride-to-be planning her nuptials around the absence of a groom, with just 30 days to find and fall for someone new? Omit a few details and you could be describing a lost Julia Roberts vehicle. (Can’t you just see the poster, with a little plastic bride, positioned next to a little plastic question mark at the top of a wedding cake?) But the details matter. Because The Wedding Plan isn’t just the Israeli version of a Hollywood movie you’ve seen a hundred times before. It’s also the Jewish Orthodox version, featuring a heroine whose harebrained sprint for the altar stems from something more than just screwball determination. She’s living on a literal prayer that God will find her a new husband by the deadline. And did we mention that the ceremony is scheduled for the eighth night of Hanukkah?
Maybe that sounds like a drag. Maybe, a secular rom-com enthusiast might complain, the last thing this genre needs is a dash of dogma. But in marrying date-movie conventions to reverent tradition, The Wedding Plan brightens both. It’s the second feature from writer-director Rama Burshtein, whose debut, Fill The Void, tackled the intense pressure put on women of the Haredi community (a subculture as hermetically sealed, in its own way, as the landed gentry), all while daring to suggest that maybe, just maybe, an arranged marriage could work out. Burshtein has what you could call a fresh perspective: Born in New York and raised in Tel Aviv, before converting to Orthodox Judaism in her mid-20s, she comes at the devout lifestyle with an insider’s experience and an outsider’s inquisitiveness. Her films travel well, because they do more than preach to their choir; they’re too searching, too concerned with what it’s actually like to live under holy rules, to ever be called evangelical.
The Wedding Plan, a religious film with the heartbeat of a crowd-pleaser (or maybe vice versa), wastes no time establishing its stakes. The opening scene introduces Michal (Noa Koler), who’s come to a local matchmaker—the old-school, analog answer to a dating website—for help in finding an eligible, suitably Orthodox bachelor. Michal, who runs a mobile petting zoo from Jerusalem (her apartment is a makeshift menagerie—one monkey wrench in her love life, perhaps), is restlessly single at 32. “What do you want?” the matchmaker asks again and again, and as Michal’s canned, boilerplate answers give way to tearful honesty, we understand all that really brought her there: not just a desire to honor God through marriage, but also the less selfless desire for security and companionship, to get her parents off her back, even just to escape the cyclical disappointment of the dating scene. Right from the start, The Wedding Plan has located a sweet spot between the specific and the universal; as in Fill The Void, the characters and their feelings are relatable, no matter how unfamiliar and even restrictive their world may look to certain audiences.
But this is a breezier confection than Burshtein’s last one; it’s closer to Nora Ephron than Jane Austen. When she’s dumped, maybe a scene later, while tasting entree options with the payot-sporting fellow who’s too hastily agreed to marry her, Michal makes a vow: She’ll continue planning the ceremony, keeping the faith that Mr. Right will present himself before the month (and Hanukkah) is up. This leads to a string of blind dates with various suitors: the oddball who averts his eyes from every potential partner, in order to assure that whoever he marries will be the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen; the deaf bachelor whose translator struggles to convey Michal’s unusually inflexible timetable; a handsome, charming pop star (Oz Zehavi) who’s perfect in every way, save for the fact that he clearly sees spirituality as a new craze rather than a true following. With only a little tweaking, one could imagine Kristen Wiig bumbling through similar episodes. But Koler, the film’s largely unknown star, always keeps the emotions real. She’s about as down-to-earth as someone determined to meet and marry her soul mate within 30 days can seem.
The Wedding Plan employs its supporting cast as a collective voice of reason; even those rolling with Michal’s outlandish leap of faith can’t help but gently suggest that, hey, maybe God helps those who cut their losses. Is Michal putting her full trust in the biggest matchmaker of them all, as some kind of expression of her devotion? Or is she secretly just banking on a miracle? It’s a debate that Burshtein smuggles into this high-concept charmer, along with other insights about what it means to be a single woman, faithful but independent of spirit, in a culture that puts a major premium on pairing off. In the end, The Wedding Plan doesn’t exactly shatter the conventions of its adopted genre, any more than it genuinely challenges the belief system of its characters. In fact, the climax simultaneously affirms both, in a manner so predictable that even identifying all of the story’s supporting players would probably give away the game for plenty of readers. All the same, the ending is pure cornball bliss, rewarding faith in conventions and creed alike. Turns out that, every once in a while, wedding something old to something borrowed can make something new.