I love this movie. I saw it for the first time when I was a teenager, and something about it has always been with me. I'm now 51, and I've come full circle in my life; the teenage me watching a Neil Diamond who seemed "old" and intimidating, to the adult me admiring how impossibly handsome Diamond looks throughout the film. I have read reviews that suggest the storyline was "dated" even in 1980. Well, let me tell you, it's 2017, and the theme of forbidden love is just as poignant now as at any time in humanity's history. This film shows Americans who are serious about their responsibilities in their roles in life. The characters expect to have to make huge sacrifices for overall good. Having the courage to make sacrifices, at the expense of those most-loved, is not necessarily admirable. Jess, in a sense, is a portent of the Selfishness we take for granted in current culture. Now, audiences would likely perceive the father and and first wife as the "selfish" ones; standing in the way of a "dream". Jess, however, is never unburdened by his choices, and his penitence on Yom Kippur is needed to begin to right the wrongs. Even after experiencing a world so unlike the predictable, stable New York society of his youth, Jess is able to return to what is "right" as a son, and as a new father.
As a teenager, I rolled my eyes at the scenes depicting religious life, understanding the frustrations of Jess. Now the scene where Diamond instructs a bar mitzvah candidate singing Hine Ma Tov, brings me to tears. I all-out cried during the scene where Jess teaches Molly the Shabbat Blessings. There is so much love and respect shown; so much honor for the mysteries of spirituality and tradition. When I saw the film in the '80s, the character of a Cantor living an Observant life seemed quite incongruous for the sex symbol-rock star Neil Diamond from the radio. I remember being surprised (and delighted) watching him break into Hava Nagila a cappella, and I found it so strange to hear that iconic, powerful "radio" voice singing Kol Nidre. Neil Diamond has taken quite a lot of criticism over the years, for recording Christmas albums, and singing "racy" songs...lol. Listening to him could be considered a "guilty pleasure" depending on the crowd you were with. But the character of Jess is so candid, humble, and real, it's impossible not to see beauty in this struggle between the sacred and ordinary life. Neil Diamond is completely lovable and adorable in the role.
Having lived most of my life in Southern California, I was very touched by the scenes of how it used to be...rustic, adventurous, exotic. It's so different from the polished, overcrowded real estate empire that it has become. California nostalgia was a surprise for me, in this movie. I could not have imagined how much it would change, or the ways it changed.
My middle-aged self applauds Diamond for being open-minded long before it was necessarily acceptable. I'm sure Diamond didn't have to take the role in this movie. Instead, he plays the part as though it's autobiographical, and he exudes an unshakeable, strong Jewish-ness that is, frankly, timeless.
The soundtrack is delightful, of course!