Tag Archives: Comedy

Funny Girl

Funny Girl is a highly fictionalized account of the rise to stardom of the great Jewish American clown Fanny Brice.  It was a hugely successful film musical in 1968, made from the equally successful Broadway show, and it introduced Barbra Streisand to American moviegoers.  It is above all else a premier star vehicle, and it still holds the moment of recognition:  a star really was born in that film.

It follows Brice from humble beginnings on the Lower East Side of New York, and it offers romanticized glimpses of that legendary home to Jewish immigrants and their children.  In the film, Brice is pictured as the only child of a single mother who struggles to make ends meet.  Fanny is a talented singer and comic who is not sufficiently pretty to make it as a chorus girl.  She parlays mishaps in her one chance on a burlesque stage into a show-stopping song that inspires the boss to hire the hapless chorus girl as a singer.  That same night she meets Nicky Arnstein, (Omar Sharif) a professional gambler with whom she falls madly in love.

As her career soars, his luck falters.  At the end of the film, Fanny is alone but still strong, still singing as only Streisand can.

Commentary

I have tagged  Funny Girl as “US History,” but that has to do with the film’s place in history, not with the film as history.  It was the Oscar-winning debut of a great American Jewish entertainer, Barbra Streisand.  It was made during the same period as the Six Day War, and the kiss between Streisand (a Jew, and vocal supporter of Israel) and Sharif (an Egyptian actor) was very controversial at the time.

As biography, the film is nearly pure fiction:  do not take it as a bio-pic about Fanny Brice.  The film and the play from which it was made were produced by Ray Stark, Brice’s son-in-law.  Nick Arnstein was still living, and still his father-in-law.  The real Arnstein was a con man who had done time in Sing Sing prison before he and Fanny were married, and who in real life sponged cheerfully from her, eventually dumping her when it suited him to do so.

Brice, on the other hand, is made a lot ditzier and less professional in the interest of entertainment.  The real-life Brice may have had very poor judgment about men, but she was a consummate professional who would not have quit a show to run off and get married, or given Ziegfeld an ulcer with her antics.  For more about the differences between the film and reality, check out John Kenrick’s excellent article on Musicals101.com.

Some things about this film haven’t aged well; I tend to agree with Roger Ebert that, “It is impossible to praise Miss Streisand too highly; hard to find much to praise about the rest of the film.”   If you want to see why baby-boomers get crazy about Barbra Streisand, see this film.  The great movie that could be made about the true story of Fanny Brice is, alas, yet to be made.

Video Bonus

2001 Re-Issue Trailer for Funny Girl

Rare footage of a performance by Fanny Brice

Next Stop, Greenwich Village

There is a time in American life when we are just past adolescence, but not yet fully adult.  This is the time explored in Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Paul Mazursky.   Set in Greenwich Village in 1953, it is not just a special time in a young man’s life, it is also a special time in the history of New York, when it was the epicenter of artistic ferment.  Greenwich Village attracted young men and women who wanted to break the rules and explore the world, and the protagonist, Larry Lapinsky (played by Lenny Baker) is just such a young man.  He wants to be an actor, and he works and studies to make his dream come true, while working a day job at a health food store.

Larry and his friends form a family of sorts, an assortment of characters, including early performances by Christopher Walken, Lois Smith, and Jeff Goldblum.  But Larry finds it difficult to leave his Brooklyn family behind, mostly because his mother, Faye, (played by Shelly Winters) keeps following him, dragging his father along to his apartment at inappropriate hours.

We see Larry through this transition in his life, right up until he comes to a truce with Mama and a new stage of life.   In the last frames of the film, he is walking down his old street in Brooklyn, munching on Mama’s strudel, saying goodbye to childhood, for real this time.

Commentary

Larry Lapinsky is not a “religious” Jew.  In the opening scene of the film, we see him take a yarmulke out of the bureau drawer as he is packing to leave home. He puts it on his head, looks in the mirror, shrugs, and drops it back into the drawer.  For him, religion is something that went with childhood:  he’s over all that now.

And yet for all that, this is a film about a young Jew in the transition from adolescent to man.  His mother is out of control, drives him crazy, and is the personification of the over-protective Jewish mother stereotype.  Shelley Winters is a force of nature, whining, screeching, cajoling, seducing, bribing, sulking, and flipping out:  she is a nightmare mom with whom her son is hopelessly entangled.  (Whatever you think of the stereotype, her performance is breathtaking.)

This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this film:  as Rabbi Brian Zimmerman pointed out in a comment elsewhere on this blog, many film directors and writers have been less than kind to Jewish mothers.  Faye is perhaps the worst of the mothers appearing in the films on this list, and yet in Winter’s capable hands, she holds an attraction for the audience, just as she does for Larry’s friends.

As those of youwho have read other commentaries in this blog know, I am interested and bothered by the depiction of Jewish women on screen.  For all the charms of this film (and most critics say it is Mazursky’s finest) the Jewish women in this film fall into unpleasant stereotypes a bit too easily.  Mama is a harridan, clingy and shameless in her manipulation.  Sarah, the girlfriend, can’t commit to anything.  Connie, played by Dori Brenner, the least developed of the Jewish women, is sweet and motherly: a bit too sweet and motherly, waiting patiently for someone to need her, and it is all too easy to see her as a younger version of Mama.

Double Features

Rabbi Zimmerman suggested a trilogy of films depicting Jewish mothers:  (1) Next Stop Greenwich Village, for the poisonous image of Mama, (2) Crossing Delancey, for the warm relationship of grandmother and granddaughter and (3) Kissing Jessica Stein, for an entirely new portrait of a Jewish mother in film.

The Nutty Professor

nuttyprofessorIn Jerry Lewis‘s most famous film, The Nutty Professor (1963) Professor Julius Kelp, a bookish chemistry professor concocts a formula to transform himself into a strong, suave hipster.   His new creation, “Buddy Love,” is strong, suave, and hip, but he is also cruel, misogynist, and a jerk.   Buddy Love romances Stella Purdy, the student that Professor Kelp admires from afar, and she finds herself mysteriously drawn to a man she does not admire.  In the end, the potion proves unstable, and Buddy Love is unmasked.  The ending of the film is curiously ambivalent, with Prof. Kelp rejecting the formula, and his new wife, Stella, tucking two bottles of it in her back pockets.

Loosely based on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the movie has gotten mixed reviews over the years:  it has been hailed as a masterpiece and reviled as a mess.  There were rumors that it was Lewis’ revenge on Dean Martin, his one-time partner in comedy; other critics have suggested that Buddy Love is a portrait of Lewis’s own dark side.  In interviews, he has rejected both theories, saying that he was fascinated with the Jekyll/Hyde story as a child, and that it “clicked” in his mind as “Jekyll/Hyde = Funny/Not.” From that beginning, he grew the screenplay and the characters.

Commentary

No characters in this film identify as Jewish.  Still, Jerry Lewis is Jewish, and whether he intended it or not, this film is a brilliant  example of the traditional Jewish concept of the yetzer hatov [the good inclination] and the yetzer harah [the “evil” inclination, an inclination to selfish gratification] in every human being.

The term yetzer harah is somewhat misleading, since in fact this selfish inclination is as necessary for life and a complete person as the yetzer hatov.  There is a story in the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 69b, that the Great Assembly decided to cast out the yetzer harah from all of Israel.  Then they found, after a time, that “there was not an egg to be found” in the entire land.  What this means is that without the urge to selfish gratification, no reproduction occurred.  Other versions of the story say that no business was done, either.  Life cannot go on without the yetzer harah; our task is to live with it and subdue it, to act according to the dictates of the Law even when our selfishness would have us act otherwise.

Buddy Love is Professor Kelp’s yetzer harah:  he is physical, brutal, handsome, and cruel.  He has no difficulty approaching women, and has a strange attraction for them, despite his brutality.  He is utterly selfish.  He drinks too much.  He is greedy for attention.  He wants, and he takes what he wants.

The professor is bookish, brilliant, and timid.  He is physically weak but mentally strong.  He is devoted to education and science.  He pursues physical strength after being humiliated in public by a bully, initially for revenge and later because he becomes intellectually fascinated by the problem.  He pursues his scientific quest with great single-mindedness.  He also has a crush upon the lovely Stella Purdy (played by Stella Stevens) and could not possibly bring himself to act upon that crush. Without Buddy Love, without his yetzer harah, the Professor would never, ever approach Stella.

The conclusion of the film brings the necessity of the yetzer harah into focus.  Professor Kelp, still a nebbish, is loved and managed now by his beloved Stella.  His father and mother appear, and have made up bottles of the formula to sell for a profit.  The professor rejects this, but Stella redirects his attention to their upcoming marriage.  It is only when the two of them walk away from the camera that we see that Stella has tucked into her back pockets two bottles of the magic formula. In measured doses, confined within marriage, Buddy Love will keep love alive between the two of them.  Some critics have argued that the Jekyll/Hyde story line is never resolved in the film; I would argue that this is a uniquely Jewish resolution.

Double Feature

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors also looks at the yetzer harah in human beings, especially in men.   His characters agonize over their choices, putting the struggle to be good and the inclination to selfish gratification on full display.

Something else to think about

Watching The Nutty Professor, I kept thinking that it was also an interesting investigation of gender.  One of the Professor’s most pronounced attributes is his high-pitched, feminine voice.  It is the first aspect of the Professor that pops out when the potion wears off.  Buddy Love has a deep, stereotypically masculine voice, and as the potion weakens, his voice ascends to the Professor’s squeak.

Talmudist Daniel Boyarin has written extensively about Judaism and gender, including Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture and Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man.   Dr. Boyarin argues that traditional Jewish standards for manliness included a devotion to study and an rejection of Roman standards of masculinity (physicality, violence, etc.).

The Nutty Professor was made in 1963.  American Jewish men were faced with hard choices in finding their own place in American society:  would they conform to traditional Jewish standards for masculinity, or throw that over for a new American image of a “man’s man”?  Might The Nutty Professor be an expression of this dilemma?

 

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

Everything is Illuminated

EisIEverything is Illuminated (2005) is a superb film that “begins in goofiness and ends in silence and memory”  (Roger Ebert).  It begins with broad comedy, but zigzags steadily towards a wrenching drama about the connectedness of all humanity and the inescapability of the past.  It’s the tale of a man (Elijah Wood) who goes in search of his grandfather’s escape from the Holocaust, and the story of the people who help him find the story, who are mysteriously entangled in the same story.  All of these people are odd, and they regard each other with astonishment.

Everything is Illuminated is based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer (who has a cameo in the film — watch for the man with the leaf blower) and adapted for the screen by Liev Schreiber.  Schreiber also directed the film.   It won awards at a number of film festivals in Europe and South America, but some reviewers felt it did not have the scope of the novel.

The film includes some wonderful performances, particularly that of Eugene Hutz, a Romani (gypsy) musician and actor.  His band, Gogol Bordello, performs several pieces on the soundtrack of the film.  Elijah Wood, a name much more familiar to filmgoers, performs a remarkable act of tzimtzum [contraction]  in taking both a literal and a figurative backseat to the colorful character played by Hutz.

Besides the obvious Holocaust theme, the movie also takes a sharp look at Jewish identity:  what does it meant to be a Jew?

Commentary

Most Holocaust films focus on the tragedy in the 1940’s, without looking at the many tragedies that stem from those initial events.  This is a film that takes a hard look at the way that every person touched by the Holocaust is effected by it, even if he or she is born years later.  It asks questions about survival:  what does it mean, “to survive”?  Can a person live through something and not survive it?  Can a person die but somehow remain?

Two figures in the film are “collectors.”  The film does not explain why they collect things:  that is left for the viewer to consider.  What do each of them collect?  Why do you think they collect them?  Do you think they will continue to collect things, after the events in the film?

I was struck by the subtle reference to the Wizard of Oz at the end of the film.  Jonathan returns to the states, but as he moves through the modern airport, he recognizes faces that he saw in the Ukraine.  What does this mean?  Unlike Dorothy, he was not dreaming.  How are these people connected to the people he saw overseas?  How is he connected to each of them?

Jewish culture puts a high value on Zikkaron, Remembrance.  Who is remembering what in this film?  What is the value of remembrance?

Double Feature

The screenwriter and director of this film, Liev Schreiber, is an actor in another film on this list, Defiance.  Both are films about events connected with the Holocaust, but they deal with it quite differently.

Other Reviews

For a slightly different take on the film, check out this blog post.

Crossing Delancey

AFA 195259Crossing Delancey (1988) is a romantic comedy about a woman in her early 30’s whose Bubbe thinks she should be married already.  Amy Irving plays Izzy Grossman, who has a fancy job Uptown in Manhattan, and whom Bubbe’s matchmaker friend has matched with Sam Posner, a blue-collar fellow who sells pickles on the Lower East Side played by Peter Riegert.   The tension in the plot is between tradition and modernity, and there is never much doubt which will triumph.

One notable performance in the film is that of Reizl Bozyk, who plays Bubbe.  She was one of the stalwarts of Yiddish theater, first in Poland and then in New York, but this is her only performance in American film.

Commentary

Crossing Delancey is billed as a romantic comedy, but the most vivid relationship in the film is that between Izzy and her grandmother.  Izzy is a modern woman, circa 1988, but she also cares deeply for her Bubbe, visiting her regularly in the old neighborhood, and looking after her.  She is exasperated but respectful when Bubbe hires a matchmaker, agreeing to meet “the match” only to humor Bubbe.

Izzy’s relationships with her friends receive almost as much time as the romantic relationships in the film.  Izzy’s work world is fully assimilated into secular American life (in this case, that of the New York intelligentsia), but her family and friendships are deeply rooted in Jewish culture and society.  She and her friends alarm their mothers, straying far into the modern world of work and career, but the film suggests that at heart, Izzy’s heart is still on the Lower East Side.

This is one of the rare films that shows Jewish women and their relationships in a warm and realistic light.  All of the women in the film could have been written and played as stereotypes, but fortunately for us, the writer and the director chose otherwise.

Double Feature

Watch Kissing Jessica Stein for a version of a similar romantic comedy made thirteen years later.  Another mother is anxious for her daughter to “find someone,” but a lot changed in those thirteen years.  What the two films have in common is a warm depiction of Jewish grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who love one another deeply, and who are people you might wish you knew.

Amy Irving co-starred in another film about a Jewish woman made in the 1980’s, Yentl.  There she played Hadass, the conventional, traditional foil to Yentl’s choices about gender.

Questions

Roger Ebert argued in his review of this film that Izzy and Sam characters are so constrained by the conventions of American romantic comedy that they are barely more than “plot devices”:  stock characters given stock speeches.   Whether Izzy is a “real” character or a “plot device” what do you think of her choices and behavior?  Do you know anyone like Izzy, or is she a caricature?

Kissing Jessica Stein

kissing-jessica-stein-10000648Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) is a  romantic comedy about two women who, for different reasons, decide to try dating women instead of men.  Jessica Stein (played by Jennifer Westfeldt) is 28 and a nervous perfectionist, and she is feeling desperate about finding “the One.”   Helen Cooper (Heather Juergensen) is a free spirit who decides to place a personals ad, and throws in a Rilke quotation on the advice of a gay male friend.  Jessica sees the quotation, and despite her unease at the idea of dating a woman, decides this is a possible soulmate. On this shaky beginning builds a relationship — and a film — that investigates the risk/reward ratios of love and life.

Tovah Feldshuh gives a standout performance as Jessica’s mother, a role which initially embodies the “Jewish mother” stereotype but gradually reveals a heart and soul that may make viewers wish for a mother like her.    Many of the characters in the film develop along similar lines:  we think we know them, and then we get to know them a little better.  In the case of the Jessica’s generation, they get to know themselves better.  It’s a fine screenplay, and in an interesting turn of art and life, it was written by the two women who play the leads, Westfeldt and Juergenson.

Kissing Jessica Stein won awards from major film festivals and was well-received by critics.

Commentary

So, you are wondering, why is this film on the “Jewish Film” list at all?  Jessica is a Jew.  Her family is a Jewish family, and the picture we get of them is much more real and warm than the caricature we usually see in American films.  We see this Jewish family in many of the places where families gather:  at High Holy Day services, at Shabbat dinner, at a family wedding.

The depiction of her mother is strikingly different from the stock character that is usually trotted out by filmmakers and comics:  one cannot help but notice that this film was written by women, not by men.   She is anxious for her daughter to marry, and is constantly setting up ambushes with men she thinks are eligible, but she is a wise woman who genuinely loves her daughter, and who knows a thing or two about love.

Jessica Stein is a Jew and Helen Cooper is not.  Once Jessica’s family becomes aware of Helen, they try very hard to be welcoming of this lesbian (!) non-Jew (!) and they make most of the usual missteps, on both counts.  Their goodwill is obvious, though, and the small scenes in which Helen tries to fit in and they try to make a place for her would make an interesting jumping-off spot for discussion.  While the interfaith angle is not a major focus of the film, everything in the film about it is quite good.

That said, Kissing Jessica Stein avoids a serious discussion that it could have had (but then, it wouldn’t be a comedy.)  Helen  is looking more for interesting sex than for love.  Jessica is looking for someone “perfect,” and the subject of love doesn’t seem to have occurred to her.  Neither woman is really looking for love, and when they stumble into it, they… stumble.  What truly went wrong here, and was it really only the most obvious thing?