Review: ‘Tango Shalom,’ starring Jos Laniado, Lainie Kazan, Renée Taylor, Joseph Bologna, Karina Smirnoff, Judi Beecher and Claudio Laniado

September 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jos Laniado and Karina Smirnoff in “Tango Shalom” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

“Tango Shalom”

Directed by Gabriel Bologna

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedy/drama “Tango Shalom” features a predominantly white Jewish cast of characters (with some African Americans, Indian Americans and Arab Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married Hasidic Jewish rabbi, who is experiencing financial problems, enters a televised tango contest with the hope of winning the grand prize, even though it is against his religious beliefs to touch a woman who is not his wife.

Culture Audience: “Tango Shalom” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in predictable movies with subpar acting and two-dimensional stereotypes of religions and ethnic cultures.

Judi Beecher and Jos Laniado in “Tango Shalom” (Photo courtesy of Vision Films)

With not enough dancing and too many bad jokes, “Tango Shalom” is filled with cringeworthy acting and shallow clichés about religions and ethnicities. This movie about a tango contest ultimately devalues the dance rehearsals. Viewers with low standards for family comedies might find something to like about this subpar film. But for people with more sophisticated tastes and for fans of dance-oriented films, “Tango Shalom” disappoints on many levels.

Directed by Gabriel Bologna, “Tango Shalom” has a screenplay co-written by three of the stars of “Tango Shalom”: the late Joseph Bologna (Gabriel’s father), Claudio Laniado and Jos Laniado. Claudio Laniado and Jos Laniado, who are brothers in real life, also portray brothers in the movie. Joseph Bologna died at the age of 82 in 2017, which tells you how long it took for this movie to get released. The Bolognas and the Laniados are also among the producers of “Tango Shalom.”

With all these family members involved in the screenwriting, producing and directing of “Tango Shalom,” it might have hindered any objectivity in seeing how embarrassing this movie makes several of the cast members look. Everything about “Tango Shalom” gives the impression that the film was made in an insular way, with no one having the courage to step up and demand improvements or to hire collaborators who could suggest better ways that this movie could have been made. Even though there are several well-known actors in the “Tango Shalom” cast, it’s easy to see why “Tango Shalom” had problems finding a company to distribute the film.

For starters, the acting is very uneven. The less-experienced actors in the cast say their lines as if they’re in a high school production, not in a movie with professional actors. Better casting decisions should have been made—and that’s ultimately the director’s responsibility. The screenplay has a lot of structural problems. “Tango Shalom” is being marketed as a dance contest movie, but there’s a lot less dancing in the movie than there should be. The scenes for the contest rehearsals are rushed in during the last third of the film.

Instead, for the first two-thirds of this dreadfully repetitive and cornball movie, the protagonist—a married Hasidic Jewish rabbi named Moshe Yehuda (played by Jos Laniado) spends a lot of time worrying about entering the contest in the first place. That’s because it’s against his religious beliefs to touch another woman who’s not his wife. Viewers are expected to believe that this dance contest, which would violate Moshe’s religious beliefs if he touched a female dance partner, is his only option to possibly get some cash quickly.

Moshe lives with his wife and five children in a crowded middle-class home in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York City’s Brooklyn borough. He wants to enter the tango contest because he’s having financial difficulties: The Hasidic school that he owns and operates is close to being evicted for non-payment of rent. Moshe has been using his personal savings to keep the school afloat, but he might have to declare personal bankruptcy if he doesn’t come up with the cash to pay off his debts. He has already maxed out his credit lines and can’t get any bank loans.

Moshe’s homemaker wife Raquel Yehuda (played by Judi Beecher) is the only person in the family who knows about these money problems. Moshe and Raquel have a good marriage overall—the movie makes a point of showing more than once that the couple’s sex life is still active—but the financial stress has caused some strain in Moshe and Raquel’s relationship. There was some trust broken because Moshe hid some of these financial problems from Raquel until he could no longer keep these problems a secret from her.

As is typical for a movie about a big family, there’s plenty of bickering among the family members. Expect to see arguments around the dining table. Moshe and Raquel’s kids are computer nerd Shlomi Yehuda (played by Nicholas Foti), who’s about 16 years old and who constantly spouts statistics and financal numbers; tomboy Shira (played by Justine Laniado), who’s about 14 years old and a huge baseball fan; Esther Yehuda (played by Samantha Rodino), who’s about 10 years old; Rifka Yehuda (played by Emma Argenziano), who’s about 7 years old; and Yeheskel Yehuda (played by Luigi Ferrara), who’s about 6 years old.

And (cliché alert) there’s always at least one high-strung, “no filter” grandparent (usually a grandmother) who ends up causing drama. In “Tango Shalom,” it’s Yoshe’s widowed mother Deborah Yehuda (played by Renée Taylor), who is prone to having crying tantrums when things don’t go her way. This movie has a lot of melodramatic acting that’s just plain awful.

Moshe has a somewhat flaky younger brother named Rahamim Yehuda (played by Claudio Laniado), who’s the type of person who always seems to be looking for his next big “get rich quick” scheme. Near the beginning of the movie, Rahamim is whining to Moshe about losing so much money in a recent financial investment that Rahamim can’t afford to pay for his upcoming wedding to his fiancée Marina Zlotkin (played by Marci Fine), who is very high-maintenance and wants a dream wedding. Marina has has a meddling mother named Leah Zlotkin (played by Lainie Kazan), who is a seamstress and very judgmental of other people.

Rahamim asks Moshe to borrow money for Rahamim and Marina’s wedding, but Moshe stalls on giving his brother an answer because Moshe is too proud to admit that he’s broke. There’s a contrived sequence of Moshe trying to look for another job to make some money. Because of his orthodox religious beliefs and his lack of work experience in anything not related to his religion, he finds out that he’s not suited for a lot of secular jobs.

However, he manages to get a low-paying job where he would have to do some physical labor, so the employer requires that Moshe take a physical exam. And what do you know, the doctor who’s doing the exam is a woman. Moshe is so horrified, he hides in the closet of the doctor’s office and eventually runs away from the office, without even telling the job that he won’t be working there after all.

Moshe (who has some limited experience in Hora dancing) then finds out about a TV contest called “Tango America” and that the grand prize would solve his financial problems. By chance, he observes a popular local instructor named Viviana Nieves (played by Karina Smirnoff) giving tango instructions. She has the type of open dance studio where people can look in the windows to see Viviana giving dance lessons to her students.

It doesn’t take long for Moshe to decide that Viviana will be his tango instructor. But what does take long is for Moshe and Viviana to get around to actually rehearsing together. He tells her up front that his religious beliefs forbid him from touching her. She’s skeptical of taking him on as a student, but she wants to enter the “Tango America” contest for personal reasons.

One of the reasons is for revenge: Two of the “Tango America” contestants are her ex-boyfriend Jose Hernandez (played by Jordi Caballero) and her former best friend Ana Parda (played by Mayte Vicens), who both betrayed Viviana. Jose recently dumped Viviana because he was cheating on Viviana with Ana. The other reason why Viviana wants to enter the contest is because she’s a widowed mother to an underage daughter who has multiple sclerosis, and Viviana needs money for experimental medical treatments that her health insurance won’t cover.

Moshe’s wife Raquel disapproves of this idea of Moshe entering a tango contest. She thinks he’s having a “spiritual crisis.” And so, Moshe consults with clergy from various religions to get their advice on whether or not he would be doing the right thing to enter the contest. It’s a very long stretch of the movie that’s dragged out to annoying levels, as if the filmmakers almost forgot that “Tango Shalom” is supposed to be a dance movie.

Moshe walks through Brooklyn and Manhattan in search of clergy who will advise him. He meets with his Grand Rabbi Menahem (played by Bern Cohen), who doesn’t encourage Moshe to enter the contest but says that Moshe should study the Torah for the answers. Moshe also consults with a Catholic priest named Father Anthony (played by Joseph Bologna); a Muslim clergyman named Imam Ahmed (played by Yasir Sitara); and a Hindu mystic named Ravi Prajna (played by Hamza Zaman).

All of the clergymen are polite and respectful, even if their dialogue is trite. Ravi Prajna says, “Big problems can be such big fun!” Moshe asks, “Why?” Ravi Prajna answers, “Because they lead to solutions.” Ravi Prajna is actually the one to come up with the solution idea that Moshe uses to become Viviana’s tango partner.

During one of these treks through the city, Moshe walks past a group of young African Americans standing on a street corner and listening to hip-hop. In a very racially condescending scene, Moshe looks intimidated just being in close proximity to African Americans, which makes him look like he forgot that he lives in Brooklyn, where a lot of African Americans live. But since “Tango Shalom” is such a corny and unrealistic movie, take a wild guess if this rabbi is going to learn some hip-hop moves from this group of black people he’s never met before.

There’s also a silly subplot of Moshe being spied on by certain rabbis and other members of of his synagogue, who are sure that Moshe will be “tempted” to commit some type of infidelity with Viviana. In real life, Smirnoff is famous for her long stint as a professional dancer on “Dancing With the Stars,” but her dancing talents are under-used in this film, which has an irritating tendency of having too much quick-cut editing in the dance scenes.

There are so many unnecessary and exasperating edits in Smirnoff’s dancing scenes, viewers will get the impression that a dancer double was used, even though Smirnoff is more than capable of doing her own dancing. In the rehearsal scenes, the movie offers very little to viewers in showing the art of tango dancing because of the gimmick solution that Moshe uses to avoid touching his tango partner. The slapstick comedy in the film is awkward and very phony-looking.

Imagine watching an episode of a dance contest on TV, and more than two-thirds of the episode was time-wasting filler of the contestants fretting about whether or not they should be in the contest. Throw in some argumentative family members, a hodgepodge of clergy and clumsily handled religious stereotypes used as punchlines—and you have an idea of what watching “Tango Shalom” is like. The scenes showing actual dancing are treated almost like an afterthought because “Tango Shalom” is too caught up in serving up stale comedy that’s as fake as the rabbi disguise that Viviana wears in the movie.

Vision Films released “Tango Shalom” in select U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021.