Bad Shabbos, Daniel Robbins
Still courtesy of 42West

‘Bad Shabbos’ Revels in Its Black Comedic Soul 

A dead body adds to the lively mix of family dysfunction and the pressure of making a good impression in Dan Robbins’ affable black comedy, Bad Shabbos.

Bad Shabbos
Daniel Robbins
10 June 2024 (Tribeca)

Humans are natural storytellers; our history combines fact, myth, and legend. Take the American Western, which romanticized and mythologized its westward expansion, or period dramas, which reimagine history through the desire to see the past as romantic and glamorous. In a time of poor hygiene, were the people of that time and place as immaculately made up as film and television dramas would have us believe? We are always managing perceptions. 

In director Daniel Robbins’ and co-writer Zack Weiner’s Bad Shabbos, David (John Bass) is caught in the crosshairs of introducing his fiancée, Meg’s (Meghan Leathers) Roman Catholic parents to his Jewish family during Shabbat, a time of rest from Friday night to Saturday night, that’s typically spent with family. All David needs to do is dial down the dysfunction. When Abby’s (Milana Vayntrub) boyfriend, Benjamin (Ashley Zukerman), provokes their younger brother Adam (Theo Taplitz), things go more awry than usual. Adam retaliates and spikes Ben’s drink with a laxative.

Speaking with Robbins ahead of the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, he described Weiner’s “lively” Shabbat dinners as an inspiration for their comedy. With producer Adam Mitchell, they turn up the dial and add the inconvenience of a dead body to the lively mix of family dysfunction and the pressure of making a good impression. 

Bad Shabbos moves at a meticulous, fast pace in the first half, introducing David’s stern matriarchal mother, Ellen (Kyra Sedgwick), and his affable father, Richard (David Paymer), who preaches the virtues of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). Meanwhile, Abby talks about breaking up with Ben and shushes anyone when they mention it. Then there’s Adam, who, since quitting his summer job working for Ben when he refused to learn PowerPoint, has moved on to his next calling: the Israeli Defence Force. Fortunately, Meg’s parents, who are traveling to New York from Wisconsin, are temporarily absent. 

This mix of personalities provides an abundance of comedic cues. The meticulous pacing is borne out of the careful use of these relationships to create comedic layers: Ellen and Meg’s awkward interactions lend the film a tense humor that encourages a wry smile and light chuckle, leaving Richard, Abby, Ben, and Adam to be the laugh-out-loud provocateurs. David is the free roamer, flitting between the two. Then, as the drama of disposing of the dead body ratchets up, these juxtaposed layers slip into a humorous free-for-all.    

“With comedy, you have a 90-minute limit,” says Robbins. “To be in that heightened place where you’re ready to laugh, you can’t sustain that for too long.” Bad Shabbos observes this rule, coming in at 85 minutes. One way Robbins and Weiner sustain the laughter is to keep the story fluid. The arrival of Meg’s parents at the 45-minute mark ushers in a noticeable shift in the comedy. It’s as if the film has the self-awareness to sense the impending difficulty of sustaining itself. A film of two halves, Bad Shabbos transitions from absurdly grounded to absurdly silly as the plan to dispose of the body hits a series of snags. It’s potentially divisive, however, Robbins and Weiner use Jordan, the apartment building’s concierge, played by Clifford “Method Man” Smith to bridge these two halves, which creates a tonal trilogy.

“The first act is meeting all the crazy characters and [witnessing] the death. From there to the 45-minute mark, it’s a different type of comedy, where they have to make a plan to try to pull this off. So, it has more of a thriller and less of a family comedy element. The tension is more about how tense the environment is than who the people are,” explains Robbins. “Once the in-laws show up, it becomes a Meet the Fockers [Roach, 2004] type of comedy, where you have in-laws clashing with this body in the other room.”       

The first act’s focus on creating order to manage the chaos as the evening unravels is the strongest of the three. Much of Bad Shabbos is a metaphor for the scientific theory of entropy, which dictates an acceleration of disorder amid randomness and uncertainty. However, there’s something delightful lost as the tightness of the comedy becomes sillier once the in-laws show up.

Robbins and Weiner fill Bad Shabbos with effective touches that are easy to overlook. Ellen comes across as that tough mother to win over, whose character is crucially developed offscreen in a private conversation between Abby, David, and Meg. Meanwhile, in an early scene, there’s an ambiguous tension between Abby and Ben that skirts the line between a relationship in trouble and a jostling for power that they secretly get a kick out of.

[Spoiler ahead] We dislike Ben from his introduction, played arrogantly by Zukerman, who provokes Adam and silently objectifies Meg. He does enough to communicate to us that Ben is an asshole and trusts us to dislike him instinctively. Then, his untimely and playfully contrived death creates a moral quandary that forces the audience to question Adam’s culpability and blackens the film’s comedic soul. 

Bad Shabbos is the type of film that encourages its audience to kick back and laugh at the dysfunction, but behind this lies a more substantial agenda. “The reality of a low-budget film is that to make the movie work in the ecosystem, it’s going to have to play festivals,” says Robbins. “We had to make a movie that we wanted to get as many laughs as a studio comedy, but we were also cognoscente that it had to play as an indie, which means authentic performances, thematic cohesion, and a real sense of authenticity and roundedness.”

The tension isn’t limited to the religious beliefs and practices between Ellen and Meg, who is converting to Judaism, and her Catholic parents; it’s also generational. Through comedy, Bad Shabbos explores the fluid and transformational nature of traditions across generations. This, however, remains a closely guarded secret—Abby doesn’t want her mother to know that she and Ben drove on the Sabbath. 

Robbins and Weiner gently explore themes of a family’s hierarchy of control and power, which subdues the younger generations who ride on the winds of change. Meg’s reading from a d’var Torah by Rabbi Sacks, the late Chief Rabbi of England, addresses the importance of small acts of kindness and the significance of these acts, no matter how small. It scrutinizes Ellen’s behaviour toward Meg and reveals Bad Shabbos’ interest in how control and power influence the way people choose to behave.

Until the end, Robbins and Weiner thread together the hope of this reading with the cynicism of how people manipulate the levers of control and power, however humorously, to their advantage. Should it occasionally soften and lean into a sillier type of comedy and come close to sentimentality or melodrama, Bad Shabbos never compromises its black, dysfunctional, quirky, and mildly twisted comedic soul.

Bad Shabbos premiered in the Narrative Spotlight strand of the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival.