[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, March 27, 1998]
Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.
It was a distant early warning sign that A Price Above Rubies began life as A Price Below Rubies. Did its makers suffer a change of mind, or did somebody belatedly check the Old Testament and discover, “Hey, we got it wrong: it’s ‘A woman of fortitude, who can find? For her price is far above rubies’”? The answer is lost in the sands of time, along with the hope that this wishfully feminist fable might achieve anything resembling power, mystery, or dramatic conviction.
The film is not without ambition. Writer-director Boaz Yakin frames his story within a magical-realist fable about a woman who followed her own sexuality and became an eternal wanderer, denied rest in either Heaven or Hell. We then wait, with diminishing patience, while Sonia (Renée Zellweger), a young Jewess, accumulates credentials for the role. Her husband (Glenn Fitzgerald) is appointed to a yeshiva in Borough Park, Brooklyn, the stronghold of Hasidism in America. She loves and venerates this “holy man,” but chafes against the fact that she isn’t permitted to make love to him, just expected to lie there discreetly and receive his conjugally mandated shtupping. Motherhood only increases her sense of claustrophobia and entrapment (and besides, wet-nursing hurts). No one in the rigidly sexist community can or will answer her frustration, but her sharklike brother-in-law Sender (England’s Christopher Eccleston) smells an opportunity. Sonia’s familial background and innate sensitivity have made her a discerning gemologist, and he wants her to become his scout for prime jewelry among the dealers on Manhattan’s Diamond Row. He also unceremoniously, and with even less grace than his younger brother, claims her as his mistress.
Sonia takes to her new role as commando gemologist. She also discovers a gifted jewelry-maker, a Puerto Rican (Allen Payne) who’s been hiding his light under a bushel as clerk to a shady dealer. Sender misreads their liaison (or maybe not) and ruins her reputation. Suddenly and quite absolutely, she becomes an outcast, with nothing and nowhere to go, whereupon Yakin begins gathering his spiritual, sociological, and mythical strands for a mighty deliverance. Or so the game plan reads.
None of this manages a whit of persuasiveness. A Price Above Rubies is so inept that when, for instant, Sonia’s sister-in-law (Julianna Margulies) accuses the consumed businesswoman of having failed to look in on her infant son for the past three months, we have no idea whether the charge is literally true or just bitchy rhetoric—or whether, indeed, three months have passed. And for a movie ostensibly steeped in Jewish culture, Yakin has assembled a cast who all seem to have taken lessons in how to sound Jewish, with as much conviction as a little-theater troupe in North Platte. Eccleston is a one-note villain, and even the marvelous Zellweger (who’s very badly photographed) fails to limn a convincing portrait—though to her credit she plays it straight, with no attempt to fall back on her winsome portrayals in Jerry Maguire and The Whole Wide World. – Richard T. Jameson