“Blumenthal,” a chilly Jewish comedy that wraps old jokes in a distinctively young voice, has a brisk cleverness that can cause you to overlook its more unpalatable characteristics. Before those take hold, though, there is much to enjoy in this prickly observation of the familial fallout when Harold Blumenthal (Brian Cox), a bloviating playwright, dies while relishing one of his own jokes.
No one cares. Not his brother, Saul (Mark Blum), an English professor whose extreme constipation is a too obvious metaphor for his inability to let go of old grudges. Not Saul’s wife, Cheryl (the marvelous Laila Robins), a sexually frustrated actress seeking consolation in the arms of a dog walker with much-in-demand supplemental services. And certainly not Saul’s ultraneurotic son, Ethan (played by the film’s writer and director, Seth Fisher), who hawks medicine for women’s bodies while knowing nothing about their minds.
Displaying an adroit way with language that lifts the film’s saggier, more formless moments, Mr. Fisher is an astute and pitiless observer of our less noble instincts. (A scene where Ethan explains why he doesn’t want his shiksa girlfriend to become Jewish — “Then she’ll be enthusiastic” — nails exactly what’s annoying about the freshly converted.) But Ethan’s search for the perfect partner leaves a bitter, almost misogynistic aftertaste: He responds to women on a cruelly judgmental spectrum from mild annoyance to outright disgust. As a result, his sole romantic gesture leaves you wishing that the object of his belated affection would run for the hills.
Sharp yet overdetermined, “Blumenthal” doesn’t breathe naturally — it’s a comedy in a box. Just not a box that everyone will want to open.