In the Israeli romantic comedy, The Wedding Plan, Michal (Noa Koler), a youngish woman who's been trying to get hitched for years sits opposite a prospective mate, trying to make small talk. This is her umpteenth date in umpteen years; all relevant clocks are ticking; she's fed up and close to despair. Mary Richards may spring to mind, also Bridget Jones, and just about every Jane Austen adaptation extant.
The twist here is that, like the movie's writer-director Rama Burshtein, Michal is an Orthodox Jew by choice. In Burshtein's beautiful and beguiling 2013 first feature, Fill the Void — about a young ultra-Orthodox woman in Tel Aviv who must decide whether or not to marry her dead sister's husband — the director is more interested in conveying the feel of her milieu from within than in making a case for it to the non-religious world. In The Wedding Plan, too, it's taken casually for granted that Michal's dates come brokered by a matchmaker. Which may make her marriage prospects look like a cakewalk to most secular women who are on their own when it comes to finding Mr. Right.
Not so. Michal's love life plays out as a kind of swipeless Tinder experience, with results at least as confusing, frustrating, absurd and sometimes sad as in any rom-com today, except that the men wear side curls and big hats, the women long dresses buttoned to the neck, and sex won't be on the table for a long while yet. Yet our heroine is anything but subservient or meek. Actually, she's a pistol. Michal may be chaste, but she's no pushover, and she won't marry just to be married. A groom has been chosen, but he's acting shifty and evasive, and Michal, a stickler for honesty, pushes the immature lad to admit he doesn't love her. Down but not out, the jilted bride decides to go ahead with her wedding plans and trust that God will provide a groom. This sets off alarm bells with her intensely protective family, friends and the wedding hall's owner (Amos Tamam), who, however baffled, agrees to help with the wedding arrangements. He's a quiet fellow but do tuck him away — he'll be back later to ruffle feathers.
Between her first and second features Burshtein, an advocate for opportunities for Orthodox women filmmakers, has acquired a nimble mastery of rom-com structure and pacing. The Wedding Plan fizzes with zany energy as Michal tumbles her way through a parade of unsuitable suitors, among them a guy with an outlandish rationale for refusing to look at prospective brides, and an Israeli pop idol (Oz Zehavi) whom she bumps into on a quick trip to Ukraine to pray at the grave of a famous rabbi.
"You have a nutty energy," one bemused prospect tells Michal, and that is generally true of this brightly colored, often zany crowdpleaser with sharply written dialogue and a pop soundtrack. Michal runs a mobile petting zoo and gets support from a girl posse that includes her neurotic sister and a sweetly supportive friend in dreadlocks who believes in her all the way to a ceremony that as yet has no groom.
Yet Burshtein also unfolds a darker, more introspective undertow to Michal's growing despair of ever finding her beshert. The versatile Koler, who won an Israeli Academy Award for her performance, does full justice to Michal's inner conflicts and self-doubt. She's wry and ironic and an astute judge of character, but she's also generous and forgiving to a roommate who betrays her. Honest to a fault, unwilling to play games and brave enough to face disappointment rather than make do, Koler's Michal seems to model herself on Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet in all her incarnations. Burshtein creates a productive tension, by turns riotous and sad, between Michal's impatience with the banal rituals of courtship and her longing for true love and companionship.
For Burshtein faith is paramount, and she's not messing around — she means religious faith. For much of The Wedding Plan we can choose to get on board for that part or not, because Michal's God helps those who help themselves. Near the end of The Wedding Plan, as suspense builds over whether a groom will appear at the eleventh hour, the bride-to-be makes a decision that leaves no room for doubt about who she believes holds sway over her life. It's a tribute to this open-hearted, humane film that you can follow along and enjoy while reserving judgment on that score.