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NewCityNet Crown Jewels

Boaz Yakin names his price.

By Ray Pride

APRIL 6, 1998:  Renee Zellweger is the radiant center of "A Price Above Rubies," Boaz Yakin's second feature after the crackling urban nightmare, "Fresh."

Zellweger plays Sonia, a Hasidic woman who has married a rabbinical scholar. Dream come true? No: Something itches inside her, the scope of which she does not even realize until her brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston), offers her the chance to run a jewelry shop in the insular neighborhood. But soon she's exposed to the larger world, as well as Sender's sexual wiles. While the simple plot is often unequal to Yakin's ambitions, the performances shine. Yakin draws on myriad influences, from Ibsen's "A Doll's House" to fabulist elements inspired by the novels of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 32-year-old writer-director grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of two Juilliard drama teachers, regularly watching the great Stella Adler teach acting classes while a teenager. Yakin, the son of two Israelis (his father an Assyrian-Egyptian Jew, his mother's parents from Poland), admits that he's drawn to stories about "round pegs in square holes."

"The heart of the film for me was this love story, a fable-like love story of this little girl for her little brother," Yakin says, describing the one respite Sonia has from an otherwise rigid life. "It was about unrequited love, a girl who has a perfect romantic love early on in her life and it's taken away from her. It colors everything in her life. There are scenes at the beginning of the film that another parent would enjoy, giving birth, seeing her kid's bris, moving into a new family. But even when she gives birth, she's essentially crying for her lost brother. Her selfish, passionate, personal need throws everything out of whack in her environment."

It's a role that requires a certain kind of actress, and Yakin is fortunate to have landed your basic sweet-faced Swiss-Norwegian-Texan. Zellweger has that rare ability to be down-to-earth, yet radiant, the goddess next door. Even as an outsider in her own skin, she's mercurial in the best possible way, her expressions flickering at the speed of thought. Whatever she thinks seems to be on her face.

"I saw ŒThe Whole Wide World,' before ŒJerry Maguire' came out, and she showed this ability to feel without seeming to act," Yakin says. "I just thought, if they're going to let me use this untried person it's gonna be great. We're not used to her tics or her mannerisms, there's something so fresh about it. Then ŒJerry Maguire' came out and she became a name."

None of the lead actors are Jewish, which worried Yakin only briefly. "The idea of having to be of a certain background to do anything artistic is a specious argument. It's an imaginative process. How many Hasidic actors from Brooklyn fit that part exactly? To me, acting, writing, you need to do research, as everyone did, but you do enough to find the emotional life of that character and emote to express that. That's what actors do."

Whatever the virtues or vices of "A Price Above Rubies," it seems there will always be groups that would rather not have stories told about them. "Look, c'mon, every movie that does anything about a community gets some kind of protest," Yakin says, running his hands through his hair. "I mean, blind people protested ŒMr. Magoo,' for Christ's sake. Give me a fucking break. In this case, I am making a film that deals with [a group], some of whom are uncomfortable with anything changing, with certain questions being asked, with anything irreverent. Anyone who has anything invested in that status quo would be offended by certain things in the film. Protesting art is a strange thing to me."

Yakin says he's always been more interested in the stylized and unrealistic in literature and film. "A sort of quote-unquote realistic approach can be effective in showing an environment or an event but it's limited in showing the emotional life of people. We tend to live in fantasy worlds a lot of the time. Those elements are part of our everyday lives, and in order to make a film that accurately conveys the way we feel, you've got to do that." He cites one literary antecedent as particularly influential. "There's this great Robertson Davies book called ŒFifth Business.' It's about the greatest magician in the world. When he's five years old, he's abducted by this circus sleight-of-hand artist who rapes him. I read it when I was 16. This magnificent idea that suggested itself to me was that in order to grow, you need to get fucked over by life. It was a beautiful metaphor. You don't grow up unless you're fucked over. If you're never fucked over and you never put yourself in a position to be fucked over, you're never going to gain enough strength to control your own life. It's a necessary part of life as I perceive it. It's what the Sender character is to me, this force she needed to get rolled over by before she could move on."


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