Once upon a time, there was a magical land called the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And in that land lived a young man named Walter Himmelstein, with the unfortunate nickname of Putzel — “little fool” in Yiddish — who dreaded setting foot outside his village.
Walter (Jack T. Carpenter) is the hero of director Jason Chaet’s and screenwriter Rick Moore’s new romantic comedy, “Putzel,” a Jewish urban fairy tale in the vein of “Crossing Delancey,” which will screen as the opening-night film of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival on June 1 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills. (The festival is a program of TRIBE Media Corp., which produces the Jewish Journal.)
As the comedy opens, Putzel seems more frog than prince. Orphaned as an infant, he’s been toiling for years in the smoked-fish shop that his ogre of a grandfather, Harry, founded on West 72nd Street, hoping that one day the store will be his so he can safely live out all his days in this Upper West Side haven.
Problem is, since Harry died, the store has been in the clutches of his Uncle Sid (John Pankow), who has long taunted Putzel with empty promises of handing over the business. When Sid finally seems on the verge of retiring to Arizona, an obstacle emerges, as Sid is smitten with Sally (Melanie Lynskey), a struggling dancer with whom he commences an affair. No matter that Sid is married to the long-suffering Gilda, who is played against type by Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”).
[Q&A: The real Susie Essman]
Putzel tries to break up Sid’s budding relationship, only to discover that he’s falling for Sally himself. But the commitmentphobic dancer is soon heading out on the road, and Putzel — who has a panic attack every time he considers stepping across 59th Street — faces a distressing dilemma: Will he stay with the fish biz or follow his own dreams? And will he ever be able to cross Central Park West?
“We wanted to tell a contemporary fable set in a small town that just happens to be the Upper West Side,” Chaet said from his apartment on Broadway at West 70th Street.
“And like all fairy tales, ours has a moral,” Moore said from his own home just half a block away. “All of the characters are stuck inside their own comfort zones. And the message is that you must be willing to risk who you are for whom you might become.”
Chaet and Moore hail from very different backgrounds: Chaet comes from a Reform Jewish family with distant roots in the Yiddish theater, in Winnetka, Ill., and Moore from a Methodist household in Hurst, Texas, near Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where he discovered Jewish humor via his father’s stash of books on comedian Alan King.
But for the past two decades, both have lived and worked on the Upper West Side, and their apartments are in such close proximity that they can actually wave to one another from their respective windows.
One day, about six years ago, they were brainstorming ideas for a new film when Chaet mentioned, a bit sheepishly, that he hadn’t ventured out of the West Side for the past six months. “I wondered why I was so reluctant to leave,” he said. “Was it anxiety, was it laziness, or fear of the unknown?’ And Rick turned to me and said, ‘That’s a movie.’ ”
The concept is that their Manhattan neighborhood is like a small town: “On our block, without crossing the street, I can go to a grocery, a liquor store, a cleaners, a book store and a synagogue,” Moore said. “So Jason and I began pondering, what could happen to a character that would cause him to never want to leave the ’hood?”
For answers, Moore thought back to his own upbringing in Texas, where, he said, “There was this unspoken sort of pressure and expectation that I wasn’t going to go very far outside of our small town, and that I was going to stay there for the rest of my life.”
In fact, Moore’s father was uneasy when the aspiring writer went off to college at the University of North Texas, even though the college was just 40 miles north. And when Moore announced his intention to relocate to New York after graduation, his father phoned the aspiring writer’s college mentor in a panic to ask whether it would be a wise move for his son. “I was furious with him,” Moore recalled. “But he was really worried about me, because New York to him seemed like a very scary place.”
In the movie, Putzel is so terrified to leave the West Side that he only pretends to go on vacation during his week off and goes so far as to spray his face with tanning makeup to make people believe he actually left town. And why is the character so paralyzed?
Blame his late grandfather, “the mythical beast called Harry,” as Chaet puts it, who dubbed the young Walter with his emasculating nickname and drilled into him that he was too worthless to do anything except tend the fish store.
“Rick and I wanted to explore why somebody would be so miserable that they wouldn’t want their grandson to seek or acquire any bit of happiness,” Chaet said. “We decided that must come from being loath to let the next generations find the happiness you never got. It’s a kind of jealousy.”
It took six years for the filmmakers to scrape up the $200,000 budget required to make “Putzel,” which they shot in 18 days in the summer of 2011, all, of course, on the Upper West Side. They persevered even when one investor threatened to bail because he thought the title of the film, with its reference to diminutive private parts, is offensive.
And talk about indie film chutzpah: To secure a location for Himmelstein’s smoked fish store, the filmmakers pounded the pavement until they found a kosher bagel shop on 72nd Street whose owner agreed to let them shoot there during the days the store was closed for Passover.
But no, the movie’s lox isn’t real: “The production designer and her mother made it out of rubber and silicone, because it had to be under hot lights for days, and it was bad enough with the bagels getting harder and harder in the background and turning into hockey pucks,” Chaet said.
Casting became like an exercise in small-town networking, as Chaet turned to his agent at The Gersh Agency to hand out scripts to fellow agents and their clients. Coups came when he was able to cast two notable female stars: Lynskey, 35, who starred opposite George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” played a wacky neighbor on CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” and turned heads at Sundance with her portrayal of a depressed divorcee in 2012’s “Hello I Must Be Going”; and Essman, 58, a stand-up comic famous (and infamous) for her scene-stealing as Larry David’s foul-mouthed nemesis, Susie Greene, on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Both performers found their “Putzel” characters offered a chance to play against “types.”
Melanie Lynskey and Jack T. Carpenter in “Putzel. Photo courtesy of Stouthearted Films
In a conversation from her home in Albany, N.Y., Essman (see related story), who plays the saintly Gilda, said she is so recognizable as the venomous Greene that perfect strangers walk up to her on the street — one even approached her at her mother-in-law’s funeral —and beg her to scream in their faces. “They’ll say, ‘I love your work; will you please call me a fat f--k,” Essman said with a laugh. “This is what my life has become, that people internationally are just asking me to tell them to go f--k themselves. This is not what I had in mind.”
Even the “Putzel” filmmakers had trepidations about working with the actress: “Early on, we had to film in a sixth-floor walk-up, on the hottest day of the year, and I was just wincing and gritting my teeth, waiting for Susie to tell us exactly what she thought of this production,” Moore recalled. “But she turned out to be the sweetest person in the world.”
Playing the soft-spoken Gilda, Essman said, “is a way to show a different side of my work.” In fact, her character is totally unprepared, initially, to deal with her husband’s cheating.
We all know how Greene would respond to this kind of malfeasance: “Of course it’s unprintable,” Essman said. “But remember that as many times as Susie Greene caught her husband cheating on her, she stays with him. And in that sense she’s very different from Gilda.”
Lynskey, a shy, soft-spoken New Zealand native, described her own encounters with typecasting over a café latte at the Figaro Bistro in Los Feliz. After bursting onto the scene at 15, playing a troubled teenager opposite Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” she eventually moved to Hollywood. “But I didn’t feel pretty or skinny enough” compared to the tiny actresses she competed against at auditions, she said.
Her career blossomed after she was cast as the “nice” stepsister to Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella in 1998’s “Ever After,” yet there came a time not long ago when, Lynskey said, she was offered only the roles of “best friends” or, more distressingly, “fat-girl parts,” even though she is just a size 6. “That’s supposed to be huge in Hollywood terms,” Lynskey said, wryly. Yet she said she didn’t turn down those offers because of vanity; rather, it was because she was horrified that the characters were ridiculed for their appearance. “It’s evil to put that kind of story out there in the world, and I didn’t want to be a part of it,” she said.
The fictional Sally in “Putzel” is not only attractive but is considered an object of desire: “It’s nice to look like a normal human being and having that be something that characters in the movie are excited about, because that’s what happens in real life,” said Lynskey, who also plays the romantic lead in “Hello I Must Be Going,” which she shot immediately after “Putzel.”
And, Lynskey added, it was fascinating to portray a character who so defiantly sticks to her life choices, persevering as a dancer even though it means performing in such unspectacular locations as a theme park. “What resonated with me was wondering how long I myself would have kept going if it didn’t happen for me as an actor,” she said. “I don’t think I’d be strong enough to live in a basement and just keep struggling in my 30s.”
But “Putzel,” she said, is her kind of movie. “It’s such a sweet, kind little film,” she said.
For tickets and information about the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, which runs June 1-6, visit http://lajfilmfest.org.