‘Twas the night before Christmas 1967: home from college, hanging around somebody’s East Village hovel, smoking dope with the Channel 11 “Yule Log” emanating from a cheap black-and-white TV, getting the munchies and leading a magical mystery tour over to Ratner’s on Second Avenue. Had I been more culturally aware (or less stoned), I might have steered the group down to Chinatown or, at least, over to Essex and Rivington to dig the kosher Chinese restaurant Schmulka Bernstein’s—but then I would have missed the transformation of a normally brusque Ratner’s waiter into something like Santa’s elf. After repeatedly restocking our table with onion rolls (unasked!), he handed us a bagful on the way out: “Here boys, take these home.” So what if they were a little stale.
I don’t think we watched a movie that night (unless you count the “Yule Log”) but the essential ingredients for a Jewish Christmas were in place: soul food, solidarity, self-aware alienation, and a mildly altered consciousness. An underground, grassroots celebration back in the day, a bad-taste joke when Schindler’s List opened mid-December 1993, the concept of a Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Eve is now so widely known that home-girl Justice Elena Kagan cracked up a Senate committee, if not interlocutor Lindsay Graham, when she referenced the tradition at her confirmation hearings.
Jonathan Kesselman’s low-budget indie The Hebrew Hammer was released for Christmas 2003, and nine Yuletides later Hollywood seems to have gotten the message, marking the most wonderful time of the year with three Jewish family comedies: Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, the Barbra Streisand-Seth Rogen two-hander The Guilt Trip, and Parental Guidance with Bette Midler and Billy Crystal matched in the roles of grandparents run amok.
But just what is a comedy? Their nominal happy endings notwithstanding, all three movies reek of male failure. Perhaps because they are played by beloved icons Streisand and Midler, the Jewish mothers in The Guilt Trip and Parental Guidance are wacky and endearing. What’s more, however annoying the advice, their wisdom is essentially right; the best that could be said for the Jewish men is oy vey. The Jewish father in This Is 40 (Paul Rudd) is in danger of going broke and having to sell his house, in part because he is helping to support his supremely feckless father (Albert Brooks); the Job-like Jewish son (Rogen) in The Guilt Trip can’t keep a girlfriend or successfully market his idea for a “green” household cleanser; the Jewish grandfather in Parental Guidance (Crystal) has lost his job and possibly his mind. Not a “Hebrew Hammer” among them.
This Is 40, which begins with a prolonged Viagra joke is, relatively speaking, the edgiest of the three movies. Apatow, who came out as a serious Jewish artist with the overblown tragicomedy Funny People, here verges on psychodrama with his actual wife, Leslie Mann, and their two daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow, playing alter ego Paul Rudd’s not entirely appreciative family. (The whole mélange appeared in Knocked Up, as the Seth Rogen character’s brother, sister-in-law, and nieces.) Founded largely on improv, This Is 40 is intermittently funny, frequently embarrassing and, at 134 minutes, quite a bit too long. (In his way, Apatow is the current Hollywood director closest to the maestro of actor-driven self-indulgence John Cassavetes.) Be advised that, as a multigenerational comedy, the movie has something to mortify all ages.
Pete and Debbie are both turning 40, even if Debbie keeps pretending that she’s on the verge of 38 and arranges a big party only for Pete. Leslie Mann is a gifted comic (she may be the designated Gentile in the marriage but she has the best verbal riffs by far). Still, as self-absorbed as Pete and Debbie are, the movie’s richest character is Albert Brooks’ Larry, a failed venetian-blinds salesman with a somewhat younger second wife and (thanks to fertility drugs, if not Viagra), toddler triplets; Brooks is almost too real in the role of a blustery, manipulative, sarcastic moocher, perhaps (and if so understandably) irritated to be playing a secondary part in Apatow’s movie rather than directing his own.
It’s striking that Larry, not Debbie, is Pete’s ball and chain. In the end, the couple manage to reconsecrate their relationship with the realization that their parents are to blame (“It’s not us, it’s them”) setting up for a birthday-party truth session featuring Larry and Debbie’s distant dad (a WASP doctor skillfully played by John Lithgow). When Debbie accuses irrepressible Larry of playing the “Jewish card” once too often, he blandly explains that “the Jewish card never expires.”
Calling The Guilt Trip!
A movie with intimations of the Brooks classics Lost in America and Mother, The Guilt Trip has to make do with Seth Rogen as the depressed, over-aged boychik Andy who, operating on some obscurely motivated but essentially Oedipal impulse, invites his doting mom Joyce to accompany him on a grim cross-country trek from failed sales pitch to failed sales pitch. “You want to spend a week in a car with your mother!?!” she exclaims. The Guilt Trip never uses the J-word but with Streisand and Rogen as a mother-son dyad (not to mention the movie’s title) it doesn’t need to.
Streisand did play Ben Stiller’s mother eight years ago in Meet the Fockers, a New Age version of The Cohens and the Kellys (also a Christmas release) and again in the 2010 Little Fockers (another Christmas card) but, happily married to Dustin Hoffman, her Roz Focker was a therapeutic Jew—a sort of cross between Harpo Marx and Dr. Ruth. Though also therapy-minded, Streisand’s character in The Guilt Trip is more traditional—a widow focused on her only child, she’s a fond, if compulsively inappropriate, buttinsky and an all-round nervous kholera.
Interviewed in the New York Times, Streisand recently revealed that her son Jason had approved of the Guilt Trip script: “He liked it. I read it out loud with him in bed. [Pauses.] Don’t take this wrong. He was recovering from back surgery.” Bada-boom, Babs! Just about the best thing in The Guilt Trip is hearing the star channel the neighborhood yentas who, growing up in Flatbush in the 1950s, she doubtless heard every day of her life: The cadences, the expressions, the nonstop anxious chatter! Forced to play the straight man (although buried deep in the movie’s unconscious is the likelihood that he could be gay), the normally crude, assertive Rogen seems depressed. He’s Abbott to Streisand’s Costello if not, unfortunately, Mike Nichols to her Elaine May.
The Guilt Trip struck me something best viewed on an airplane. But that was before I sat through the stunningly unfunny Parental Guidance—a strong candidate for the worst movie I’ve seen all year. The J-word is never mentioned here either, although with veteran shtick-meisters like Billy Crystal and Bette Midler playing a pair of veteran shtick-meisters it’s hardly necessary. Artie’s a minor-league baseball sportscaster fired for rampant fogy-ism; Diane’s a former singing TV weather-gal, albeit still a live wire, who introduced pole dancing in her living room with a gang of 60-something cronies. They’re acutely aware of themselves as “the other grandparents” when brought by their semi-estranged daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) to babysit her three kids while she and her ethnically non-specific husband (Tom Everett Scott) take off for a week.
“Our grandchildren are going to love me,” Diane exults, even as helicopter mom Alice breaks out in her “Artie and Diane rash.” Her kids are already problematic. The oldest daughter is an uptight overachiever who (shades of Golden Boy and Humoresque) is forced by her ambitious mom to study the violin; one of her younger sons is a shy stutterer, the other is an obnoxiously spoiled brat. It’s a given that Grandpa Artie’s residual urban street smarts and wise-guy humor, leavened by Grandma Diane’s earthy acceptance, will work their magic—but be prepared not to hold your breath.
On second thought, maybe you should. Accompanied by audible sighs and groans at the screening I attended, Parental Guidance drops the bar for G-rated tastelessness so low that it’s virtually buried. Not only does Grandpa Artie accept his grandchildren calling him “Farty,” he sings several verses of a no-doubt Crystal-composed song to a constipated tyke that begins, “Come out, come out Mr. Doody, come out and splash in the pool …” Grandma Diane’s lines are genius by comparison. Shopping with her granddaughter she picks out a frilly cocktail number for the child’s violin recital and exclaims, “This is perfect for a girl with cute little heinie!” (Note to dramturg: That’s “tushy,” grandma.)
Not satisfied with merely opening on Christmas Day, Parental Guidance actually inscribes Chinese food into the movie, featuring a Chinese restaurateur so heinously stereotyped he would have made the makers of Charlie Chan cringe—not least when he runs over a grandchild’s imaginary kangaroo playmate in the course of making an emergency delivery of chicken chow mein. It’s scenes like that that bring to mind the line from Godard’s Weekend to the effect that “the horror of the bourgeois can only be overcome by more horror,” although the kangaroo’s funeral does give eulogist Crystal his best joke: “How do you say goodbye to someone you could never say hello to.”
How indeed? If you’re looking for more livelier, more professional entertainment, there’s always Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. A violent, scurrilous, funny—if family-unfriendly—faux spaghetti western that uses the N-word more times than any movie in the history of the universe, it attempts to do for slavery what Inglourious Basterds did for the Holocaust. Django Unchained also opens Christmas Day which this year is erev Kwanzaa. But that’s another essay.
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J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet Magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.