By Michael Fox
Jewish characters and concerns were unusually well represented on movie screens in 2007. However, you needed a sharp eye to pick up on them, for assimilation was this year’s dominant theme. From Seth Rogen’s smart-mouthed shtick in “Knocked Up” to Russell Crowe’s unaccountable Star of David in “American Gangster,” Jews were simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
There was no dominant Jewish (or anti-Jewish) figure, which was a relief of sorts after shrinking violets Sacha Baron Cohen, Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg dominated the headlines in recent years. Back on New Year’s Day, though, it seemed like a lock that megawatt celeb Angelina Jolie would be the face of 2007 for her portrayal of Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart.”
As it turned out, Michael Winterbottom’s dramatization of the events surrounding Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping in Pakistan made little impact on the summer box office, and Jolie’s performance was a well-integrated supporting role instead of a star turn. The film was attacked in some circles for not asserting (despite an absence of proof) that the Wall Street Journal reporter was murdered because he was Jewish. In fact, Winterbottom made a powerhouse movie (from Mariane’s memoir) that takes every conceivable opportunity to remind viewers that Danny’s Judaism was central to his identity. “A Mighty Heart” was not only the Jewish film of the year, but one that will stand the test of time.
Jewish moviegoers took consolation in the modest hit “Freedom Riders,” starring Hilary Swank as a newbie teacher in multi-culti L.A. who uses “The Diary of Anne Frank” to inspire her students. The plot (based on a true story) was largely formulaic, but writer-director Richard LaGravenese won accolades for working a Holocaust lesson into a mainstream Hollywood movie aimed at teenagers.
In case its significance escaped you, the uneven comedy “Knocked Up” established Seth Rogen as the first Jewish leading man of the 21st century. (What, you’re waiting for the second coming of Paul Newman?) Rogen’s blend of smarts, verbal pyrotechnics, self-deprecation and self-confidence made Ben Stiller’s manic screen persona — on display this year in the remake of “The Heartbreak Kid” — seem shallow and annoying. Alas, Stiller isn’t going away, nor is Zach Braff (the blink-and-you-missed-it “Fast Track”).
Primarily, though, the place to find Jewish romantic leads was in independent films. Interfaith love affairs ruled the day, from Jeff Lipsky’s intimate talkfest “Flannel Pajamas” to the winning New York romantic comedy “Ira and Abby” (written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt) to the Jewish- Kurdish fable “David & Layla.” Writerdirector- star Jeff Garlin (of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) did hook up with a Jewish girl in “I Just Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” but she was played by the resolutely anti-romantic Sarah Silverman.
Indie filmmakers also offered the most compelling views of the American Jewish experience. Jeffrey Blitz mined his New Jersey adolescence for the painfully awkward high-school-debate-team saga “Rocket Science,” and Frank Langella played an old-school New York novelist in Andrew Wagner’s “Starting Out in the Evening.” “The Savages,” Tamara Jenkins’ sharply observed tale of two children thrust into the job of caring for their elderly, estranged father, was a bittersweet fable of adulthood and responsibility. How Jewish are the Savages? You be the judge.
For the record, an animated version of “The Ten Commandments” was released this year. It is not to be confused with “The Ten,” a hit-and-miss satire of lust, dishonesty, ego and envy broadly inspired by the Ten Commandments and aimed at the 20-something crowd.
The roll call of Jewish characters in mainstream movies — although they were rarely identified as such — included Sydney Pollack as senior law partner Marty Bach in “Michael Clayton,” Alan Arkin as a U.S. senator in “Rendition,” Natalie Portman as a hottie in “Hotel Chevalier” (the short that served as the prelude to “The Darjeeling Limited”) and the aforementioned Crowe as cop Richie Roberts in “American Gangster.” Bob Dylan provided the inspiration for “I’m Not There,” but neither his name nor his Jewishness received a mention.
Speaking of hard-to-believe true stories, it was another excellent year for documentaries. Dan Klores’ jaw-dropping “Crazy Love” revisited one of the most bizarre New York (love) stories of all time. “The Rape of Europa” detailed the Nazis’ campaign to pilfer and/or destroy the art of Europe, providing an unusual angle on the Holocaust. (“Rape” made the short list for the Documentary Oscar, as did the upcoming “A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman”). Also worth a look was “Jimmy Carter Man From Plains,” Jonathan Demme’s record of the “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” book tour.
It was a terrific year for Israeli cinema, with prizes at every major international film festival. “Beaufort,” “Jellyfish” and “The Band’s Visit” will open here in the next few months, allowing a window to catch up via DVD with the grittily realistic Israeli drama “Close to Home,” about two teenage girls thrown together during military service, and the musical family melodrama “Three Mothers.” “The Bubble,” the latest polysexual pop drama from leading Israeli director Eytan Fox (“Walk On Water”), centered on a trio of good-looking 20-something roommates — two gay men and a straight woman — whose apolitical lives are upended when one of the guys begins an affair with a Palestinian man.
The highlight of the international film scene was “Black Book,” Paul Verhoeven’s (“Basic Instinct”) pulpy, crude and entertaining wartime thriller about a gorgeous Jewish woman who joins the Dutch Resistance. The lowlight, arguably, was another historical epic, “O Jerusalem.” Argentine director Daniel Burman scored with “Family Law,” about a Jewish lawyer’s complicated relationship with his attorney father. French actress-writer-director Julie Delpy cast Adam Goldberg as her assimilated New York Jewish boyfriend in “2 Days In Paris,” a repartee-fueled look at a relationship strained by jealousy.
The list of obituaries was small in 2007, but noteworthy. Melville Shavelson, the writer-director-producer of “Cast a Giant Shadow” (1966) and author of the 1971 memoir of that shoot, “How to Make a Jewish Movie,” died at 90. Joey Bishop was known as a comedian but he’ll forever be immortalized in the Rat Pack heist film “Ocean’s Eleven.”
The playwright and novelist Ira Levin won fame and fortune with “Rosemary’s Baby” (brilliantly adapted by Roman Polanski) and “The Boys from Brazil.” Finally, Norman Mailer’s contributions to the movies as a writer and director were less than impressive, but we mourn his passing nonetheless.
The last three men were recognizably Jewish, even if they never talked about it. For a number of characters that graced movie screens this year, that was their defining characteristic.
By Michael Fox