Judi Beecher and Jos Laniado in Tango Shalom.
Rabbi Moshe Yehuda (Jos Laniado) walks through life with a spring in his step, and with good reason: he’s got a beautiful wife who’s still madly in love with him, five well-raised kids, and a fulfilling career as a teacher. Unfortunately, the school isn’t paying its own bills, let alone his family’s, and work in his neighborhood is hard to come by. One day, Moshe walks by a dance studio offering a tango lesson and, on a goof, starts following the lesson from the sidewalk. The teacher, Viviana (Karina Smirnoff of Dancing with the Stars), knows talent when she sees it and instantly asks Moshe to be her partner in an upcoming tango contest with a big cash reward. The problem: Moshe is a Hasidic Jew and thus forbidden to touch a woman who is not his wife. And the tango? It’s all about the touching.
Tango Shalom has a bit of a pedigree for this kind of light comedy—it was produced by Joel Zwick (director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and co-written by Joseph Bologna (Oscar-nominated screenwriter for 1970’s Lovers and Other Strangers)—but it struggles to flesh out its premise, a concocted conflict played for laffs that feels more suited to a sitcom’s runtime than full feature length.
To pad things out, Moshe’s dilemma is built up into a full-blown spiritual crisis requiring advice from his spiritual leader, Rabbi Menahem (Bern Cohen, basically playing a Mel Brooks character). And when he doesn’t like that answer? His quest for guidance leads him to a Catholic church, a mosque, and even a Sikh temple. (These interactions are not, shall we say, culturally sensitive.) The plot’s forced machinations strain under the weight when stretched out to two hours, which is at least 20 minutes too long. To be clear, Tango Shalom isn’t a total slog, but for a movie that aims for light and breezy, there are definitely times where the pace drags.
That the movie remains watchable is a testament to Jos Laniado as Moshe and Judi Beecher as his wife Raquel, whose performances feel refreshingly grounded given their wacky surroundings. Smirnoff’s performance as Viviana is weighed down by some pretty ham-fisted motivation foisted on her character; she fares much better when the film concentrates on the dancing and her interactions with Moshe. Most of the film’s other performances go pretty broad—a little too broad to give the story much dramatic heft. (The leads are not immune to this: Moshe recoils in horror any time a woman offers to shake his hand. It’s a bit much.) The jokes themselves tend to be pretty obvious and corny; if that’s your sort of thing, you’ll probably love the movie, but I was more drawn to the family story at the heart of the movie—most of the best scenes involve huge family dinners, just letting the characters bounce off each other. “Familial” is a good word to describe the production as well as the film itself: director Gabriel Bologna is co-screenwriter Joseph Bologna’s son; Joseph’s wife Renée Taylor plays Moshe’s mother, while his cowriter Claudio Laniado is star Jos Laniado’s brother and plays Moshe’s brother, etc. etc. That sense of family definitely comes through in the finished product.
Tango Shalom is in the tradition of films like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, a story about someone casting off the prying eyes and conservative tut-tutting of their neighbors to find joy in something a wee bit scandalous. In this case, however, the results are a whole lot more wholesome: Moshe’s connection with Viviana is confined entirely to the dancefloor, as he only has eyes for his wife. (The film is rated PG-13, but the only thing even remotely suggestive in the entire movie is a few scenes that imply that, despite five kids and many years of marriage, the good rabbi and his wife are still healthy and active in the bedroom.) It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is charming, (mostly) inoffensive, family- and religion-friendly, and eager to please. | Jason Green
Tango Shalom is available for home viewing as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival running March 6-13, 2022. Individual films are $15 to view while all-access passes for the festival are $98, and viewers must be in the state of Missouri to watch the films. For a full list of films or to purchase tickets, visit jccstl.com/arts-ideas/st-louis-jewish-film-festival/.