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A Universal Language – Movie Review

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A Universal Language – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

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Mark Breslin is a promoter, club booker and entrepreneur whose name comes with a lot of notoriety in the standup world. The brain behind Yuk Yuk’s, Canada’s largest chain of comedy clubs, any comic that’s stepped up to the mic in the last 30 years knows Breslin’s name. From open mics to independent clubs, bars, coffee shops and studios coast to coast – it’s a name that comes with a lot of mythology and reputation. Igal Hecht’s documentary delves into how Breslin’s  ability to inspire future comedians thirsting for club gigs and try to promote their acts in an age where political correctness is at an apex. Some might say PC’ism has completely run amok, but the tradition of the standup comic as social commentator and free speech ambassador stands the test of time. Lose that and we lose the art itself.

A Universal Language introduces us to a cross section of pro comics on the Yuk Yuk’s roster, hand picked by Breslin to embark on a tour of Isreal. Featuring Nikki Payne, Mike Khardas, Jean Paul, Aaron Berg, Rebecca Kohler & Sam Easton, this film serves as both an introduction to six veteran Canadian comics and a sort of social-political travelogue of Israel. A Universal Language manages to say a lot in its short running time of an hour and change. The result is  a fresh perspective on six very different comics, as they look for humour across the cultural divide and try to figure out the right line to walk in their material.

A Universal Language is at its most fascinating in its purest “talking heads” form, when the comedians provide their own individual reactions to touring Israel. What Breslin has done is brought together a motley crew of comics of different races and religions and getting a sense of their perspectives of how their material travels to a vastly different country. A Universal Language introduces us to Mark Breslin, and puts a face to the name. His background, his path — what exactly took him from fledgling standup comic to (arguably) Canada’s biggest promoter. Granted, we get the brief bio on Breslin’s background, given that his career itself could provide ample source material for a documentary all its own. From there, we’re introduced to each of the six comics, before they embark on their cultural tour of comedy abroad.

Of the six comedians, the ones that stand out particularly in their experience are Rebecca Kohler and Jean Paul. Kohler’s humour has an ability to target other peoples’ perceptions in a way that’s both sensitive and poking fun at the same time. One of the biggest laughs in A Universal Language is her stand-up bit about suspiciously helpful Internet users. Paul, meanwhile, has an approachable and relaxed style in his stand-up, and his ability to react to offended patrons shows an interesting side to comedians’ responses to crowd reaction. That exploration of Israel’s response to more risqué humour presents a curious look into how  the language of comedy travels to other regions . It’s a subject that was tackled in a different light, previously with Bill Maher’s Religulous and Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Albeit, in much different contexts, and in this case, the setting is specific.

East Jerusalem is shown to be more sensitive than, for example, Tel Aviv and the main conflict is how the comedians pick and choose how to censor their material or whether to censor at all. Should they even block out certain jokes, so as not to offend? That is a question frequently asked by Breslin and his select group of comics through the course of the film. A particularly interesting perspective comes from Yisrael Campbell, a former Catholic comedian who converted to Orthodox Judaism. However, outside of some quick walk-outs, we don’t see any specific reactions from offended people and it would have been nice to hear the other side and why said people were shocked, outside of their obvious religious and regional views.

Part of A Universal Language also delves into being a travelogue of Israel and Hecht manages to make it work by not taking the focus away from the comedians. Their personal feelings during the trip are nicely pieced together here, with visits to the Western Wall and the Holocaust Museum resulting in emotional moments for them. While the film makes occasional reference to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s not a major focus of the documentary and thus allows the movie to show a different side of the country away from the gunfire that is usually depicted on the news. The opening explains that the controversial boycott of Isreali films at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival  initially led Mark Breslin to embark on this trip with his  troupe of comics.  That’s the initial idea, but we never get a conclusion to that storyline.

A Universal Language is a well-done documentary that manages to tackle the subject of humour and cultural taste with a fun group of people at its center. No matter one’s religion, there is likely to be a number of aspects that will make the viewer think. It is on the short side, running only seventy minutes, but director Igal Hecht still manages to showcase a lot of ideas and perspectives and allows it to become more than just a trip and Mark Breslin’s presence does not take over, but rather adds to what the film is trying to say. This is a solid look into the thought process of comedians in an entirely different region.

Review By: Stefan Ellison
Research: Dean Young


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