Instead of trying to figure out what kind of movie Dough is, you might be better off figuring out what kind of movie it isn’t. John Goldschmidt has jammed a veritable treasure trove of movie formulae into its 90-minute framework: It is at once a fish-out-of-water picture, a scrappy underdog flick, an “old people say the darndest things!” knee-slapper, a stoner romp, and a culture clash comedy. Goldschmidt even manages to throw in stale jokes about elderly luddites and technology, plus a boxing backstory that is puzzling until it’s convenient for the plot, on top of a drug crime yarn. Talk about value. Dough is the very definition of “bang for your buck,” assuming that hodgepodge is your thing.
The problem dogging Dough is coherence, or maybe it’s more accurate just to say that none of its various modes and ideas wind up cohering. The film is about Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce), an aging Jewish baker fallen on hard times. Whether by either the ravages of time or modernity, Nat seems to continuously lose customers at his bakery, a family-owned business that once upon a time was a cornerstone of the neighborhood. Nat’s an old school chap, the kind of guy who rises well before the ass-crack of dawn and starts churning out challah and bagels, reliable as timeworn clockwork. The way Nat spends his mornings stands in contrast to how young Ayyash (Jerome Holder) spends his. As Nat makes muffins, Ayyash tries to elbow his way into the local drug trade, an enterprise that typically ends with him running from the cops.
Ayyash and Nat have one thing immediately in common: They’re both desperate. Nat stands by helplessly as he watches his dwindling livelihood run through his fingers like so much spelt flour. Ayyash, a Muslim and African expat who lives with his mother in council housing where the roof drips water from the upstairs neighbor’s bathtub, is the de facto man of his home. (Dad is M.I.A., though once you learn precisely where in Africa the family came from, you can do the math on his whereabouts without needing to check it.) He and his mom are in desperate need of support and income. If the film used those undercurrents of despair and need as its combined through line, then Goldschmidt might have had something. He would, at least, have maintained a single focal point.
But Dough moves at such a breakneck pace that it glazes over its thematic possibilities without even realizing it. It’s too busy vaulting back and forth between plots and sensibilities to follow through on the promise of its initial setup. Nat and Ayyash must cross paths, as dictated by the laws of odd couple comic pairings, and so the former eventually takes on the latter as his apprentice. Their relationship represents the film’s primary narrative thrust, at least in theory. Watching these two come to terms with their varied differences—of faith, of race, of age—is all the conflict that the story demands. But Goldschmidt lacks so much confidence in his material that he has to throw in a crooked entrepreneur scheming to bully Nat out of his tenancy, as well as a brutal drug dealer who hounds Ayyash after taking him under his wing.
Oh, and then there’s the matter of the weed that winds up in a batch of dough at Nat’s bakery, which spikes sales through the roof and pulls in fresh patrons eager to sample the duo’s wares. Starting to get an idea of how scattershot this thing is? Dough isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just lacking in attention span. But it could have been a perfectly buoyant slice of entertainment if only Goldschmidt had elected to hone in on just one or two of the script’s many moving parts. The film has all the components necessary for making lighthearted, cheeky comedy work: It’s plenty warm, it’s frequently funny, and it’s loaded with charming performances, in particular Pryce and Holder, who vibe very well despite how often their dialogue feels forced on the page. (Also a delight: Philip Davis, hamming it up as Nat’s unctuous business rival. He’s the film’s Snidely Whiplash, or its R.J. Fletcher.)
But Goldschmidt has no groove to fall into. He’s so unassured of what he wants Dough to be, or to be about, that he lets his movie be constantly overtaken by every other movie he has stuffed into its running time. (This, perhaps, is why you don’t let two guys write the script for your movie.) Even at its best, though, Dough tends to cleave a little too close to the hokey for its own good. As Nat and Ayyash both overcome their mutual religious and ethnic distrust of one another, the movie practically cries out “afterschool special.” But a sharp afterschool special is preferable to a disjointed afterschool special. Even My Mother Was Never a Kid had something that resembled direction.
Director: John Goldschmidt
Writers: Jonathan Benson, Jez Freedman
Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Jerome Holder, Philip Davis, Pauline Collins, Ian Hart
Release Date: April 29, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.