“Just be yourself” goes the old phrase echoed to countless nervous or frustrated men and woman seeking a partner. It’s good advice too. You’ll never find someone to love if you’re going out and pretending to be someone else. However, some people find themselves so down on their luck that they cannot fathom the idea their failings are anything other than their own fault. Here is where Oran Zegman’s short film “Marriage Material” comes in. It’s a musical satire about those people, one which tears them down in order to lift them up.
Our unlucky in love protagonist is Leah (Gwen Hollander), a woman who, according to herself, usually ends up with losers whom she has to propose to because they never will. We see her doing just that through song right at the start of the film, which is swiftly followed by her rejection. This is how she finds herself being driven by her parents to “Yenta Feldman’s Late Blooming Bride Retreat”.
Here she is greeted by a volunteer (Diane Kelber) a prim and proper grey-haired woman who seems to be constantly analysing Leah. Then the most fateful meeting of all, Ms Feldman herself (Laura Gardner). The film’s satire begins the second she comes on screen, mere moments after she breaks into song, the sentiment of which amounts to “We’re going to change you as a person” but is hilariously expressed as “You’ll be yourself, but better”.
Therein lies what Marriage Material is all about. The institutionalised thought process that sees people believe they need to change themselves to be happy; Yenta Feldman feeds on those who think that way. In her retreat, all women receive a diagnosis before treatment begins, Leah is labelled “Alpha” meaning she’s dominant, too dominant for Yenta, and another woman “too picky”. Regardless the women are all put through the same training; they are all striving to become slight variations of one person.
They all dress the same, they all sleep in the same room, they are all taught by the same teacher, their goals are the same; each and every one of them, including Leah, is unknowingly pandering to an impossible ideal. It’s all presented humorously though as the training is rather comical, like sex imitations with mannequins and how to correctly pour lemonade. But there is a constant uncomfortable undercurrent, at every turn, the film makes clear what it’s trying to say without being too explicit, and then it sneaks up right at the end and punches you in the gut.
Overall this is quite an achievement from Zegman who combines her dark humour with the upbeat music spectacularly. Of all the shorts I’ve seen this year this one is undoubtedly the most engaging, a feat which Zegman shares with many but none more so than her composer Ben Zeadmen. His score echos the bombastic nature of the script smartly and becomes poignant at just the right moment towards the end. However, those closing scenes have one champion above all others, Gwen Hollander.
Leah is told to make a life-changing decision at the end of the film in order to get married to a man she’s only met once. Naively she agrees to go through with it and cries as she lies on the operating table. Then in an image reminiscent of the closing to the graduate she stands next to her man on a balcony, panic rapidly setting in as she realises what she’s done. It’s all absolutely brilliant and eerily harrowing, a terrific performance.
I can’t stress enough how important the ending of this film is. It’s the entire point, the affirmation that it’s foolish to behave the way these women do, but also cements the critique on the ideals that brought them to Yenta in the first place. Marriage Material ends with such a stiff blow that it becomes the most critical moment in the entire film. Suddenly it becomes a wise film, unassumingly so too, and it makes for something well worth watching and paying attention too.
Timeless in its themes and charming in its execution Marriage Material takes music and uses convey an essential message, one that brings a few laughs along the way.
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