Just as every American knows about the 1969 Mets—how they came back from last place to win the World Series—every Brit knows the story of the 1966 England Soccer team that played so poorly they had only “two chances: no chance and fat chance,” to quote Uncle Jimmy, one of the characters in the British comedy “Sixty Six.” And yet on July 30, 1966, that English team did what everyone thought was impossible: they won the World Cup Championship. It was the happiest day for everyone in England, except for 13-year-old Paul Weiland, who had his Bar Mitzvah that day and no one showed up.
Forty years later, Weiland, now a film director, took that childhood pain and used it as inspiration for a delightful comedy, loosely based on his personal experiences. The result is “Sixty Six,” a wonderful little film that played in US theatres last year and can now be purchased on DVD. It tells the story of bookish, 12-year-old Bernie Reubens (Gregg Sulkin) who is always the last to be picked for any team; no one pays him much attention, except for his older brother (Ben Newton) who likes to physically abuse him.
But as soon as Bernie discovers that when he becomes Bar Mitzvahed he will be the utter center of attention, he becomes obsessed with a day revolving around him and sets out to plan the perfect party. He proclaims, “It will be ‘The Gone with the Wind’ of Bar Mitzvahs … the Jesus Christ of Bar Mitzvahs.”
But there’s only one problem: it is scheduled for July 30, 1966. Of course, since he doesn’t pay any attention to sports, he’s unaware that the date conflicts with the World Cup Soccer match, which is being held in his home city of London. When he discovers the conflict, his world comes crashing in.
Of course, it shouldn’t be that bad. As long as England doesn’t make it to the final round, most people won’t care and they will be happy to show up to his Bar Mitzvah. And with the way the ’66 team has been playing, it seems unlikely. But nothing is impossible, and the fates scheme to ruin Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah.
From that moment on, Bernie has only one quest in life: to make sure England doesn’t make it to the World Cup final. He learns everything he can about soccer, prays to God that the team members suffer horrible ailments as they advance through the tournament, and even invokes curses and voodoo dolls to help England lose.
The movie would be absolutely hilarious if there weren’t serious adult things going on around Bernie. His father (Eddie Marsan, the driving instructor in “Happy-Go-Lucky”) and Uncle Jimmy (Peter Serafinowicz) who run a grocery store together, are having serious business troubles. From Bernie’s perspective, this means his party will have to be scaled back; but to the adults, the financial problems are far more serious. And things keep going from bad to worse. His mother (Helena Bonham Carter) has to be the rock that keeps the family strong.
Also, the doctor who is treating Bernie for asthma (Stephen Rea) is having marital problems. His rabbi (Richard Katz) is blind. His older brother is having trouble at school. And Uncle Jimmy falls and breaks his neck.
Worst of all, Bernie is afraid that he might turn into his father, a poor schlemiel who is afraid to stand up for himself or to make a decision. Not only that, but he’s paranoid about locking his car, he’s afraid of dogs, he doesn’t know how to tell a joke, he’s really bad at speechmaking, and he drives way too slow. It’s funny, but it’s also kind of sad.
Bernie really wants—no, he really needs—to be the center of attention for at least one day; every Jewish boy gets this on his Bar Mitzvah … except for Bernie. How can he “become a man” if everyone thinks a soccer match is more important than him? Even the gabbi at the synagogue keeps looking at his watch while Bernie is chanting his Torah portion.
Poor kid. Despite his best efforts to keep England out of the World Cup Final, he notes ironically that, “What was supposed to be the best day of my life turned out to be the best day in the lives of everyone in England, except me.”
And yet, in the best tradition of comedy, the movie does go on to have a happy ending. It’s a great family film. It’s fun and delightful. It’s sad and touching. It’s joyous and life-affirming.