Produced By: Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I discovered that the Hallmark Hall of Fame was debuting a new film on Sunday, January 25, 2009, I was excited. After all, the last five specials were very interesting and truly enjoyable. Then I heard the storyline of Loving Leah and started to have my doubts. This sounded like your run-of-the-mill forbidden love finds a happily ever after ending type of movie. But, I remembered that Hallmark Hall of Fame commercials have a habit of being big teases, never letting on to the real theme of the film, so I decided to give Loving Leah a try.
Based on the play of the same name written by Pínenah Goldstein, Loving Leah begins by introducing us to a young doctor on the rise. Jake Lever is a cardiologist on a fellowship at a hospital in Washington, D.C. He is very far removed from his Orthodox Jewish family, choosing to follow his career and put his religion on the backburner. In doing so, he has unfortunately put some distance between himself and his beloved brother, Benjamin, a Rabbi.
Jake never thinks twice about this rift until he is visited by Benjamin in a dream. Shortly afterward, he receives a phone call delivering the news of his brotherís death. Returning to Brooklyn, New York for his brotherís funeral, he is confronted with the reality that the members of his family are Orthodox and thus still adhere to the Biblical teachings that if a man dies, the single brother is required to take her into his home as his own wife. He is responsible for her welfare. Jake balks at the idea of marrying his sister-in-law Leah and fortunately, so does she. The two decide that they will go through the formality of the religious ceremony to absolve Jake of all responsibility for Leah.
However, when the day of the ceremony arrives and the Rabbi calls for Jake to deny his brotherís existence to absolve him of responsibility to his brotherís wife, Jake finds he canít go through with it. Jake decides that the two could live with one another in Washington, D.C. as roommates and give off the appearance of marriage without ever having to actually behave as husband and wife, much to his current girlfriendís chagrin. Leah, looking for an escape from her Orthodox upbringing and secretly hiding a desire to spread her wings, jumps at the opportunity.
Once in Washington, D.C., itís a struggle for Leah to break herself of her teachings and explore the world and its possibilities. Itís even more of a struggle for her to remember that she is not really Jakeís wife Ė sheís played the role for her brother for so long, she forgets what it is like not to have to take care of someone. As she begins to find a way to assimilate while still holding onto some traditions, Leah canít seem to shake one particular feeling Ė that she and Jake were meant to be together. But does Jake feel the same way? And if he does, how could a relationship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a man with little interest in his religion remain together?
I was thrown for a loop by the Loving Leah storyline. This was not at all what I expected. And the casting Ė Mercedes Ruehl as Jakeís mother (I just canít seem to take this woman seriously in dramatic roles, especially after Gia), comedienne Sue Essman as Leahís mother (looks the part, but doesnít deliver well) and Ricki Lake as a reform Rabbi (say what?) Ė I just wasnít sure what to expect. However, as I continued to watch the movie, I began to find it more and more enjoyable. Yes, this is a quirky romantic tale, but with a special sort of twist that makes it somewhat unique and yet somewhat predictable.
Lauren Ambrose is perfect as Leah Lever. Itís wonderful to watch her transformation into an independent woman who can still hold on to traditions while searching for more meaning in her life. You will actually find yourself rooting for this womanís success (and I mean in more ways than romantically) by the end of the film. Adam Kaufman is equally enjoyable as a man who has broken away from his faith, yet is not willing to sever the bonds he once shared with his family, especially when he sees what a special woman his brother married.
Loving Leah is not your run-of-the-mill Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Yes, there is a great deal of emotion running throughout the film, but this movie is not as serious as your average Hallmark film. I found it to be unique and enjoyable to watch. Some may find fault with some of the unrealistic points of the film, but I enjoyed the revelation of many Jewish traditions, such as the candle lighting, the unveiling of the headstone and more. Hopeless romantics will love this movie, equating it with such romantic films as Moonstruck or It Happened One Night, two of Leahís favorites.
If youíre looking for the emotional rollercoaster that a Hallmark film usually puts you through, look elsewhere. Loving Leah is a movie about romance between two unlikely people that on the surface looks like every other romantic film, but down deep has a uniqueness that will draw you in and keep you watching until the closing credits.