Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
When I think about Passover on film, there are two different types of stories. The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are two diverse examples of realizations of the Passover story, which each picked up one Oscar apiece, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song, respectively. Remembering the exodus is a crucial part of the Passover seder, but seeing the Passover seder on screen can be compelling too. It didn’t win any of its three Oscar bids, but Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors uses its Passover seder to excellent dramatic effect.
Woody Allen got his Oscar start in 1977 in a big way, winning Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Annie Hall and earning his one and only Best Actor nomination. His film also won Best Picture. Annie Hall already represented a departure from Allen’s sillier previous works, and the following year he netted Best Director and Best Original Screenplay bids for the even more serious Interiors. By the time Crimes and Misdemeanors was released, in 1989, Allen had picked up an additional seven nominations and one win, for penning the script to Hannah and Her Sisters.
Crimes and Misdemeanors, like all Allen films, presents a charismatic, conflicted individual at its center, one who is moderately successful but hardly happy enough to stay monogamous. The film splits its time between that thread and a far more comic one, which features Allen as a squirrely filmmaker and Alan Alda as his pretentious brother-in-law. In the primary plotline, Martin Landau, who scored a second consecutive Oscar nomination for this role, stars as Judah Rosenthal, an ophthalmologist who has the typical Allen problem of being both married and in another committed relationship. When Anjelica Huston’s mistress informs Judah that she plans on telling his wife, he consults two future Law and Order stars, Sam Waterston’s rabbi and Jerry Orbach’s brother, and decides to have her killed.
This sharp and dramatic event prompts Judah to contemplate the severity and impact of his actions. The film’s best scene finds Judah wandering back to his childhood home and asking its new owner for a few moments to look around. After a minute, Judah conjures up a Passover seder he remembers, where his father struggles to lead a prayer-filled service, only to be interrupted constantly by the naysayers in his family. Judah listens as his father is accused of exhausting “mumbo-jumbo” and superstitions, and is told that he is afraid that, if he does not obey the rules, God will punish him. He replies that God punishes only the wicked, which prompts Judah to become a living character in his own memory, asking what happens if a man commits a crime, and if he kills. “One way or another, he’ll be punished,” his father tells him. When he is told that murder is murder, Judah responds in shock, “Who said anything about murder?” His aunt concludes, ultimately, that he will be fine if he can do it and get away with it and not be bothered by it. The scene ends as Judah’s father defends his convictions, saying that, even if all his faith is wrong, he’ll still have a better life than those who doubt.
This philosophical and religious discussion represents a sincere enhancement over the admittedly hilarious “D’Jew” obsession Allen’s character Alvy Singer has in Annie Hall. At another point in that classic film, Alvy has dinner with his Christian girlfriend’s family and imagines himself perceived in Hasidic garb by her anti-Semitic grandmother, while the tranquility of that meal is compared with a loud and boisterous Singer family dinner. What Crimes and Misdemeanors represents is a somber, important investigation into the Judaism that has helped to shape Judah’s life, and comes back to him only when he has done something truly immoral. Right before a holiday so centered around food, this particular meal is excellent food for thought.
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March 11, 2013 | 5:24 am
Posted by Abe Fried-Tanzer
FOX’s successful new comedy, The Mindy Project, which just got renewed for a second season, won’t air a new episode until next week, but its most recent installment contains a highly worthwhile encounter with Judaism. For those unfamiliar with the show, series creator Mindy Kaling portrays spunky young doctor Mindy Lahiri, who, among other peppy traits, has an immutable fondness for romantic comedies. Some previous episodes begin with her recounting the splendor of romance in the movies and how it doesn’t always play out in real life. Episode sixteen, “The One That Got Away,” starts somewhere different: Mindy’s childhood days at a Jewish summer camp.
Mindy begins by recalling that her parents would only send her to a sleepaway camp if it was in the “gentle hands of the Jews of the Berkshires.” Upon arrival, Mindy notices a definite difference in her appearance when compared with the rest of the campers, and, one day at lunch, she is interrogated about her religion. After explaining that Camp Takanac has been open to non-Jewish campers since a court case (Chan vs. Takanac) in 1989, Mindy is rescued by the curly-haired Sam, who tells his friend that she is Sephardic. When she questions him about the remark, he skips the explanation and assures her that the joke landed.
That subtle moment is the catalyst for the entire episode, and it’s interesting to see such a quick reference that many viewers won’t understand serve as the beginning of a great friendship. It’s especially notable when taken next to the subject of my previous post, Seth MacFarlane’s poorly-received Jewish joke at the Oscars, something which everyone watching definitely understood. Sam is Jewish because he is at Jewish summer camp, with only his typically Jewish appearance to help identify him further. Aside from a slight instance of intolerance from that other camper, Jews get a pretty good reputation in this episode, and it only helps that Sam has grown up into someone who happens to look a lot like Seth Rogen.
Rogen’s casting seems obvious, but it merits further examination. Rogen recently starred in the comedy The Guilt Trip opposite Barbra Streisand, as a budding entrepreneur who ill-advisedly asks his mother along on a business road trip. I spotted a challah on a Friday night dinner table, but otherwise Judaism is never mentioned, a puzzling move for a film with such prominent Jewish actors, both of whom have hardly kept their Jewish heritage secret. It’s particularly jarring considering an earlier Rogen role, one that he himself wrote, which was as Officer Michaels in Superbad. In one hilarious scene, dumb cop Michaels gets a description of a robbery suspect from a store clerk and concludes that he must be a Jewish African because he looks both like the African-American clerk and his character, who is, unsurprisingly, a Jew. Rogen milks his religion for all the comedy it’s worth.
As Sam, Rogen doesn’t reference his Judaism, leaving that to Kole Selznick Hoffman, who portrays the younger Sam at Camp Takanac. What Sam represents, however, is a missed opportunity for Mindy, who could have had this wonderful romance with her dream guy, funny, charming, and attractive. Sam’s enlistment in the military prohibits him from sticking around to pursue a relationship, and, after a short time of exploration and intimacy, he is gone, just another whirlwind adventure in Mindy’s story book. Objectively, there was no reason Sam needed to be Jewish, and it’s fun to see this positively-portrayed character pop up with a genuine and familiar back story.