Tag Archives: Comedy

The Big Lebowski

Biglebowskiposter The Big Lebowski (1998) is a film about which feelings run high: viewers tend to love it or hate it. It’s a shaggy-dog tale from Joel and Ethan Coen, who also wrote and produced A Serious Man, also on this list.

These essays are not meant to be reviews, instead a rabbi’s commentary on the Jewish content of a film. The Big Lebowski has significant Jewish content: it is the only film I can remember which explores the Jewish identity of a Jew by Choice in any depth.

Walter Sobchak, played by John Goodman, is foil and friend to The Dude [Jeff Bridges.] He is insistent that he is a real Jew, and he is both serious and knowledgable about Judaism. He is adamant that he does not “roll on Shabbos,” unless it is a matter of life and death. He quotes Maimonides to make a point, referring to him as the Rambam, as might a person who had studied with rabbis. He also quotes Herzl: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

“But you aren’t Jewish anymore!” says the Dude, exasperated. Walter is insulted by that suggestion, explaining that just because he and his ex-wife split up, he’s still a Jew, and he’ll be a Jew forever. Walter is passionate about much in life, and he is passionately Jewish.

That may seem like a relatively small slice of Jewish content, but consider how few images there are of adult converts to Judaism in film. The only other film I can think of at this writing that even mentions conversion is the dreadful Keeping the Faith (2000), which suggests it as a clever way to paper over differences.

Walter Sobchak is flawed and foul-mouthed, but he is an earnest and observant Jew. When he is asked to play in a bowling tournament on Saturday, he’s vehement: “I do not roll on Shabbos,”  and he goes into great detail explaining the mitzvah, littering his explanation with profanity.  It is that very juxtaposition of the holy and the vulgar that creates comic friction in the character of Walter. He’s a mess, but he’s a devout mess:

If my readers have any questions about the suitability of this film for children, that clip should have taken care of it. It’s vulgar, profane, tacky, and obscene in bits. It’s also very funny.

Questions for Discussion

1. The Big Lebowski has a cult following, with an assortment of drinking games. Here’s a game to play with a glass of Kedem Concord Grape Juice or the kosher wine of your choice: Raise a L’chaim every time Walter mentions his Jewishness or defends its legitimacy.

2. Notice one of Walter’s Jewish habits: he quotes sources by name to illustrate his points, not only about Judaism but about nearly everything. See if you can count the number of times he cites a source. This is what’s known as speaking b’shem ro, in the name of someone. It’s very good form to cite your sources by name, a form of respect, and a way to avoid stealing credit for someone else’s words.

3. What Jewish values does Walter live out in the course of this film? What Jewish values could he perhaps work on in the future?

4. What stereotypes about Jews by Choice can you identify, not just in the film, but in your experience?  Which of those stereotypes does Walter fit? Which does he not fit? Are any of the stereotypes contradictory?

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You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) is a Judd ApatowAdam Sandler film:  as Roger Ebert so beautifully put it, “a mighty hymn of and to vulgarity.”  It is a slapstick romp about a crack Mossad operative whose secret wish is to “stop the killing” and become a hairdresser in New York.  Once there, he finds himself an outsider along with many Palestinians. They chase one another, in Keystone Cop fashion (but with more penis and hummus jokes) until the sets are destroyed and everyone is exhausted.  I think that about sums it up.

Commentary

I had to think a while about my comments on this film, because I hope that Sandler et al meant well.  There are many jokes making fun of Israelis, some of it pretty rough humor, and to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt, I hope that he thought that those jokes were in balance with the jokes at the expense of the Arab characters.  After all, the Zohan’s love interest is a Palestinian woman!

But there is no getting past the fact that while the film plays with Israeli stereotypes (tough guy, the accent, the attitude, the Sabra heart of sweetness) it trades on a nastier stereotype of Arabs and Palestinians:  the lust for Jewish blood and mindless hatred.  The humor about the Zohan springs from the tension between his tough-guy Mossad persona and his true hairdresser lover-boy identity.  The humor about the Arabs in this film does not come from any such tension:  the men are mostly Wile E. Coyote to Zohan’s RoadRunner, one-note idiots who repeatedly court disaster in hot comic pursuit of their quarry.  The more benign Palestinian male characters are merely dim.  This is racist stereotyping at its worst, because it is disguised as “all in good fun” while it sends the same old hateful messages.  Worse yet, it is aimed specifically at young men.

For those who are saying, “Whoa! Don’t you love Israel?” all I can say is, I dislike this film because I do love Israel.  I am a deeply committed Zionist.  I lived in Israel in 2002-3, during the Second Intifada.  I dislike this film because I think that racism like this hurts Israel, and damages the chances for peace, because it tells young American men that Palestinian men are subhuman.  I can point to Israeli films that take similar or even touchier subject matter and do so much better with it:  for example, watch The Band’s Visit.  It’s a wonderful, funny film that gets its comedy from the humanity of everyone in it.

For a contrast to a broad, sometimes vulgar comedy that tackles similar subject matter with much better results, take a look at The Infidel.  Everyone in that movie is a complicated human being, with complicated motives and dreams that lead them into a comical collision.  We all laugh together at the human condition:  much, much better.

As for the way women are pictured in this film, I will just say: feh.  I am very tired of Jewish filmmakers failing to work out their mommy issues — or going for the cheap laugh, which is worse — by dumping on women.  Sandler and Apatow, you can do better!

The Infidel

The Infidel (2010) is a British comedy about Mahmud, a moderate Muslim whose life is thrown into chaos by two discoveries:  first, that his son wants to marry the daughter of a radical Islamic imam, and second, that he may in fact be a Jew. Nothing about that sounds funny, but in the midst of a train wreck of religion, politics, and identity, The Infidel finds gentle humor by exploring the absurdity of all bigotry. In that, it reminds me of the classic French comedy, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973).

Mahmud is played by Omid Djalili, a British Iranian standup comedian and actor, who may be a familiar face to international audiences from his appearance in the 1999 James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Mahmud is a hapless fellow who does not ask much:  he would like to sit on the couch watching football and music videos by his favorite singer from the 80’s, Gary Page. However, as the patriarch of the family, he must deal with his deceased mother’s home and take care of his family.

Before we are ten minutes into the film, Mahmud’s life becomes complicated.  His son reveals to him that (1) he has found the woman he wants to marry and (2) her father is a radical cleric who must approve the marriage, and who is visiting England now. As if that were not bad enough, Mahmud finds records in his mother’s house leading him to believe that his biological parents were Jews.

His sense of self and security blown to smithereens as surely as by any bomb, Mahmud sets out to explore his Jewish identity with the help of Lenny, an American Jewish cab driver, played by Richard Schiff. He is Naomi to Mahmud’s Ruth, trying to teach him what it is to be a Jew. Meanwhile Mahmud is also trying to hold together a pious Islamic facade for the visiting imam, out of exasperated love for his son.

To say more would spoil the fun.  As a NY Times critic  wrote, this is not caustic stuff.   I enjoyed it because like the best humor, it laughs at and with everyone it portrays.

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Commentary

There are very few films that attempt to mine comedy from the hard stone of Jewish – Muslim relations.  The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is more about French anti-Semitism; there are Muslim characters but they are secondary.  You Don’t Mess with the Zohan attempts this material but loses its way with anti-Arab nastiness.  The Band’s Visit  is an Israeli film with comic elements but it is a more complex film with more complicated characters.  The Infidel goes for broad humor and a big laugh; the ending is ridiculous but satisfying.

Mahmud is a sympathetic character: he is a sincere if not exactly devout Muslim, and he genuinely loves his wife and family.  Lenny is a bit of a stereotype, a cranky mostly-secular American Jew, but Schiff plays him with a gruff grace at the right moments.  The accomplishment of this film is that it is firmly grounded in the humanity of these guys and the people around them.  We laugh and groan at both of them, and feel that we know them a bit better.  In this 21st century of bitterness and war, that is an accomplishment.

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Parents should be aware that  the film does not contain much in the way of sex or violence, but there is a lot of foul language.

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009) is the most explicitly Jewish film thus far from Joel and Ethan Coen. It is a black comedy, blacker even than their previous film No Country for Old Men.  Its violence is purely emotional, but none the less harrowing for that.  It begins with a quotation from Rashi, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  It then proceeds to a folk tale in Yiddish about a man named Velvel who is helped on the road by an acquaintance of his wife; he invites the man back to his home for a bowl of soup.  His wife, however, is convinced the man is a dybbuk, a body possessed by the soul of a dead person, and she stabs him/it with a fork.  The visitor stumbles out into the snow, and we are left with the question:  who was right, the man or his wife?  Was the visitor a righteous man or a demon? How can one know?

Fast forward to 1967, and another Jewish household.  Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulberg) wants to be a righteous Jew living a decent life.  He is married, he is a physics professor, he is near to receiving tenure at his university, he has two children, a girl and a boy.  The boy will be bar mitzvah soon.  But below the surface, almost nothing is right:  his son smokes pot incessantly, his daughter steals from his wallet, saving money for a nose job, his wife has decided to leave him for a widower friend.  Someone is sending anonymous hate mail about him to the tenure committee.  He is pursued by a wild assortment of large and small misfortunes, from fender benders to the Columbia Record Company to a  student who intends to bribe and/or blackmail him.  He is nervous about one scowling, gun toting neighbor, and attracted to another, a woman who has “trouble” written in her eyeliner.  His brother lives on the couch, constantly draining his “sebaceous cyst,” drawing complaints from the police about gambling and sodomy.

Like Job, he has comforters who do not comfort.  He seeks advice from friends, who offer platitudes.  He seeks out his rabbis: the youngest mouths senseless banalities, the middle-aged one offers a story without an ending, and the ancient, allegedly-wise one — no, I won’t spoil the surprise.  Advice comes from other sources too, including his son’s stereo:  the Jefferson Airplane repeats over and over again, “You gotta find somebody to love,” offering the answer that Archibald MacLeish suggested at the end of his play on Job, J.B..

Commentary

If indeed the Coen brothers intend to suggest Job to audiences, they do it without invoking any of the resolutions that Job-stories generally offer.  MacLeish suggested that love was the answer.  The tacked-on ending to the Biblical book insists that all will be restored to the righteous in the end.  This movie, though, ends on the bleakest of notes, with an ominous phone call and an approaching storm.  Disaster clearly lies ahead — and yet since the viewer is in 2009, and the story ends in 1967, the world didn’t come to an end.

One might be tempted to say, well, then, it’s all meaningless.  And that, too, is a possible answer.

For me, watching this film as a rabbi, this film was nearly unbearable to watch.  I was furious with the rabbis, furious with the wife, furious with the friends — but I have to ask myself, what would I say to Larry Gopnik if he walked into my office and demanded an answer?  The film was sharpened by coincidences:  this winter I have watched too many friends suffer through inexplicable troubles, things they did not bring upon themselves, misfortune upon misery, and the Coens are right:  all these events demand a cry of Why?

The quotation that opens the film, “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you,” is Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13, from Parashat Shoftim, “You will be tamim with Adonai your God.” Tamim is a Hebrew adjective which can be translated “simple,”  “blameless,”  or “wholehearted.”  The son who “does not know how to ask” in the Haggadah is tam.  Noah is described in Genesis as an ish tam, a simple man (Genesis 6:9.)   Job is also described as tam v’yashar, a blameless and upright man (Job 1:8.) Larry Gopnik is a simple man in a different way:  he seeks answers in the elegant simplicity of mathematical equations.

Rashi suggests that understanding may be beside the point.  We are free to ask “why?” but there are no clear and easy answers.  What remains is the possibility of remaining a decent human being in the face of it all.  Another quotation from rabbinic literature comes to mind: “In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.”  (Mishnah Avot, 2.5)

Another Rabbinic Point of View

For another rabbinic take on this film, read Rabbi Anne Brener’s billiant article on it in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

An Israeli take on the film

Ella Leibowitz’s article in Haaretz on A Serious Man offers yet another completely different view on this film.

God is Great, I’m Not

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

The Heartbreak Kid

I have not yet had an opportunity to write a commentary for this film, but I recommend the comments on it in The Top 10 Interfaith Films by Michael Fox.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) was described by its creator, Quentin Tarantino, as “a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography.”  It is a fantasy about a group of Jewish American soldiers “The Basterds”) who travel around occupied France hunting down, killing, and scalping Nazis.   The film opened to an enthusiastic box-office and mixed critical reviews.

Reviews

After talking to friends who had seen the film, I decided not to view it.  The violence level in this film is far beyond my tolerance.  Instead, I will point you to some reviews around the web:

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun Times)

Manohla Dargis (New York Times)

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times)

Tassoula’s Movie Review Blog

thumbsupordown

The Movie Blog.com