In Adam Sandler's animated film, "Eight Crazy Nights," a self-professed 33-year-old crazy Jewish guy comes off like a tweaked Jewish Scrooge.
Haunted by the ghost of Chanukah past, ex-Jewish Community Center (JCC) basketball star Davey Stone (Sandler) rivals the antics of Sandler's previous angry-doofus characters. He gets drunk at a Chinese restaurant, terrorizes elderly patrons with a nuclear belch (their glasses break), moons Christmas carolers and destroys his town's Santa and menorah ice sculptures. It takes a Chanukah miracle -- and the intervention of an elfish youth basketball referee named Whitey (also voiced by Sandler) -- to turn Stone around and rekindle his faith.
Some might say "Eight Crazy Nights" is itself a holiday miracle. Perhaps the first studio release with Chanukah as a backdrop, it presents the Festival of Lights not as Christmas' weak stepsister, but as a vibrant part of the American cultural fabric. Sandler himself wants the movie to do for film what his hit "Chanukah Song" has already done on the radio: to provide an alternative to the Christmas fare that bombards popular culture each December. "The intention was to write a funny movie and hope that maybe every year you get to see it somewhere," the Jewish actor-comedian told MTV. (He no longer does print interviews.)
Sandler, whose past six films have racked up at least $500 million in North America, may be one of few Jews with the clout to convince a studio to greenlight a Chanukah-themed release. While his portrayal of a quirky salesman in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love" is currently generating Oscar buzz, his penchant for the scatological has endeared his own films to the coveted male teen audience. Simultaneously, the overt cultural narcissism of his "Chanukah Song" (the movie features a new version of the song), has made him the darling of Jewish armchair sociologists, according to critics such as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice.
"Like Barbra Streisand with 'Yentl' and Steven Spielberg with 'Schindler's List,' Sandler is using his stature to produce the kind of Jewish material he wants," said Sharon Pucker Rivo, executive director of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University.
"Eight Crazy Nights" is another Sandlerian brew of Judaism meets pop culture, so along with halachically correct menorah lightings there are jokes about jockstraps, armpit hair and 'poop'-sicles (don't ask). Although some viewers will raise eyebrows at the juxtaposition of crude humor and Yiddishkayt, longtime Sandler collaborators think it makes sense. "At its core, this is an Adam Sandler movie," said Allen Covert, the film's producer and co-screenwriter with Sandler, Brooks Arthur and Brad Isaacs.
"Adam wanted to address his core audience and Columbia Pictures is in the moviemaking business," said Arthur, a veteran music producer and the film's music supervisor. "So the movie had to get a little naughty here and there. But at least there is a menorah for the world to see.... And Chanukah is part of the spine of our movie, not just a passing reference. It's a great way to introduce the holiday to people who know nothing about Jews."
The film's creators have more than a casual relationship to Judaism. Covert, 38, the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, is studying for his 2003 bar mitzvah at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Arthur, a Traditional Jew in his late 50s, served as cantor to the junior congregation of his Brooklyn Orthodox shteibel and now attends Chabad of Beverly Hills. In a 1998 Jewish Journal interview, Sandler, 36, said he grew up playing basketball on a beleaguered Manchester, N.H. JCC team -- which closely resembles the fictional New England team in "Eight Crazy Nights." He was one of two Jews in his elementary school class and, as he sings in the "Chanukah Song," sometimes felt like "the only kid in town without a Christmas tree."
Class clowning was a good way to make friends; it also provided a springboard to his future profession. After an abysmal stand-up comedy debut at age 17 (even his big brother, Scott, admitted he stunk), Sandler attended NYU and was discovered by "Saturday Night Live" executive producer Lorne Michaels at a Los Angeles comedy club in 1990. Sandler went on to write and perform for "SNL" for five years, creating memorable characters such as the foppish Operaman. He penned the "Chanukah Song" after Michaels liked a Thanksgiving ditty he'd written: "I was walking down the street when I thought up the first line," the comic said. "It went, 'Paul Newman is half Jewish; Goldie Hawn is half, too. Put them together; what a fine-looking Jew!"
Eventually, Sandler made a career of playing endearing and not-so-endearing losers such as the bratty rich kid in 1995s "Billy Madison." He has suggested that his affinity for playing loser-outcasts hails from growing up Jewish in small-town, USA, a milieu depicted in "Eight Crazy Nights."
The movie began when Columbia Pictures' Amy Pascal heard the "Whitey and Davey" sketch from Sandler's 1999 comedy album and agreed it would translate well into an animated film. In a videotaped interview, Sandler, looking adorably scruffy in jeans and a T-shirt, said he'd hoped to turn himself into a cartoon character after "watching myself over the years in the movies getting progressively older and uglier."
Behind the scenes, Sandler's goal was loftier: "At our first meeting he said, 'Let's make a movie about Chanukah,'" Arthur recalled.
Arthur, who provides the voice and likeness for the film's bearded JCC rabbi, served as the movie's Jewish consultant; he taught the animators to correctly light the menorah and provided reading materials for his fellow writers. Ultimately, they decided to emphasize Chanukah's miracle theme rather than describing the historical or religious aspects of the holiday. "We opted not to tell the story of the Greeks versus the Maccabees to have a more widespread appeal," Arthur said. "I know Adam wanted to go that way and we felt that Columbia would not want to treat the movie as a Bible study class."
Some of the film's Jewish content is played for laughs, however, such as a scene in which the WASPy townies dance the kazatzka while singing a Fiddler-esque tune called "Bum Biddy." But the movie's creators remain serious about Judaism. To help children traumatized by suicide bombings, Sandler scheduled a New York screening of "Eight Crazy Nights" to benefit the Pediatric Psychiatric Department at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Covert, meanwhile, said reading about Chanukah, in part, inspired him to schedule his bar mitzvah next year. "In the end, 'Eight Crazy Nights' is about a Jewish guy who finds his faith," Covert said. "And hey, it's helped me find mine."