Wendy Kout may be the nicest person in showbiz.
What’s more, she’s nice nice: She’s sincere, hopeful, and bursting with life and positive energy.
It’s not every day that when you interview a subject, you just want to keep on talking to them, long after the final question has been asked and answered.
In truth, she’d be anyone’s perfect idea of what a best friend should be: someone that enjoys an intellectually stimulating conversation, is willing take care of you, but also willing to call you on your shit.
And more than likely, unfortunately, even after she’s been in the business for nearly 25 years, no one reading this probably has any idea who the hell I’m talking about.
But that’s ok, boys and girls. Stick around, because after watching “Dorfman,” her absolutely lovely screenwriting debut, this Thursday at the Minneapolis Jewish Film Festival, I’m sure you’ll remember her name.
Raised in Miami by her activist parents, Kout’s first experiences with Judaism came from her time spent at Temple Beth Am.
“I went to Sunday school and my parents were very active in the Temple,” said Kout. “It was more than just a religious center for our family, it was a social center, as well; and it was also an introduction to activism through Judaism, because my parents were activists, at the time. At that time—this was many moons ago—Castro had taken over Cuba and there was a Jewish federation that was helping Cuban Jewish children emigrate to the United States, and my parents fostered a series of Jewish children from Cuba. It was quite something, very touching. These kids did not know if they’d ever see their parents again. So, as a child, I was exposed to the political realities of living with children who were traumatized and terrified and didn’t speak English. So, that was quite a gift to me, to have such extraordinary parents. I think that’s always been with me: that sense of who we are and our own identity as a people and how, we as Jews, have empathy for all people who go through oppression or genocide.”
Her Jewish upbringing also showed her the lighter side of life, too, and not just the darkness that comes with political activism.
“All of those sensibilities have impact on you as a writer,” she explained. “Other than the Jewish identity, which brought along the political awareness, came the sense of humor and how we as family, and, I think, we as a people, have learned how to survive and cope with life—with a sense of humor.”
Which brings us to Kout’s experience in comedy, and there’s plenty of that to speak of.
Having mainly worked in television, writing for shows such as “Mork & Mindy,” as well as creating one of my personal favorite sitcoms of the late ’80s and early ’90s (when I managed to sneak out of my bedroom, that is, or watch the syndicated reruns), “Anything But Love,” starring Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis, one would have thought that she could have easily taken a leap to the big-screen.
And boy, did she try, writing one unproduced screenplay after another. That is, until she bumped into a former producer with whom she’d worked with, during the ’80s, Leonard “Len” Hill (also Jewish). She had this screenplay titled “Dorfman.”
“I have written many screenplays,” explained Kout. “I have tried to get a movie made for many, many years. I’ve worked with wonderful, wonderful people. I wrote for Barbara Streisand’s company. I wrote for the late, great John Hughes and the late, great Laura Ziskin. This is my first produced screenplay; so you can imagine how wonderful this is for me, because I had honestly given that dream up.”
The story revolves around a young Jewish woman (the spectacular Sara Rue) who acts as caretaker/doormat to her widower father (veteran Robert Altman favorite, the great Elliott Gould), her horn dog brother (Jonathan Chase), and, of course, her secret crush, played with oozing insincere sleaze by Johann Urb, but ultimately finds herself blossoming into a Woman, gaining the courage and the strength to live life on her terms, after being asked by said sleaze ball to watch his loft in what is now a renovated downtown Los Angeles (“D-Town” is its posh nickname, throughout the film) while he’s out of town.
Unlike most producers, who are usually quick to sweep aside the screenwriter and mold a project as they see fit, Hill pretty much gave Kout an all-access pass, allowing her to have a say on everything, especially the casting of Jewish actors to play her complex characters.
“It’s really a universal story about a young woman’s journey and, with that, how it affects her relationships with her family,” said Kout. “I find that, whether it’s a play or a book or a movie, the more specific, the better. Otherwise, a generic experience is a diluted one for me, so I love learning about other cultures. I’m the first one to say, ‘oh, my God, there’s a new movie from India!’ and also in “Dorfman,” I hope that what you experience is not just the humor from the Jewish characters, but that the multi-ethnic cast all have humor.”
I couldn’t agree more.
“Dorfman” is one of those rare comic gems where, even though you’ve seen films with similar variations of the same themes, the terrific cast and the spot-on, witty writing and observations transcend what could have been a cookie-cutter coming-of-age film.
Much of the credit goes to the absolutely effervescent, enchanting performance by Sara Rue as Deb Dorfman, the ultimate doormat.
This film wouldn’t have had nearly the profound effect it had on me, had it not been for her lovely, natural transformation from a single gal who knows how to take care of everyone but herself to a woman who is trying to figure out what to make of her new self.
This movie is about change, from the inside and out. Watching Deb go through her evolution is absolutely magical. What’s more, it has little to do with her change of threads, but her change of spirit. Rue, who has appeared on various defunct TV shows, is a real find. We absolutely root for her character to take the plunge into adulthood, become independent and to stop apologizing for being who she is.
To a certain extent, the film reminded me a bit of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” except the ethnicities of the characters weren’t shoved down our throats. While the characters are, make no mistake, Jewish Characters, they are who they are. They’re actors give their characters a lived-in feel. You get that they’re comfortable in their own skin.
Elliott Gould, who, over the years, has received many a pretty penny for playing stereotypical Jewish caricatures, here, plays the character as a nebbish, often using humor to mask his own grief over losing his beloved wife. He does an amazing job of walking that tightrope of grief and mordant, self-hating stereotype. He gives one of his most subtle, sensitive performances in years.
The other find in this film, which was nicely-helmed by Brad Leong, and is rich with scene-stealers, is Haaz Sleiman, the Lebanese actor who was so heartbreaking in 2007’s “The Visitor.” He takes every scene he’s in and adds the perfect amount of sex appeal. You can’t take your eyes off of him. He’s hypnotic and has a sly sense of comic timing. It’s easy to see what Deb admires about him. It’s fun watching him watch Deb grow. You can see how proud he is of her. Their tender, playful chemistry together is sincere, unforced, and always manages to keep us on our toes, waiting for their Big Moment.
But Kout’s film isn’t about Big Moments. It’s about small changes that add up.
There’s one small moment in particular, toward the end of this film—I won’t say which one—where Rue, as Dorfman, let’s out a little giggle of giddy delight and surprise at herself. I laughed, too. The moment was well-earned and pitch-perfect.
And for the most part, so is this terrific film.
I hope it finds an audience.
Like the title character herself, the film deserves an opportunity to blossom.
Eds. Note: Join TC Jewfolk to see “Dorfman” at the Opening Night of the Minneapolis Jewish Humor Fest this Thursday, March 15th at the Showplace Icon Theater in the Shops at the West End. 6pm Opening Reception, 7pm Film, with a Q & A to follow with Screenwriter Wendy Kout.