Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Adam Sandler’s raunch-fest “That’s My Boy” hit theaters in time for Father’s Day, starring Jewish icons Sandler and Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”) as the reconciling father and son. And not unexpectedly, critics aren’t exactly embracing the film, while acknowledging the humor will hit the sweet spot for Sandler fans who appreciate his puerile man-child shtick.
The film begins as Donny Berger (Sandler), who names his kid Hans Solo Berger after siring him at 13 with his middle school teacher (Susan Sarandon), reenters sonny’s life seeking cash: If he doesn’t come up with $43,000 pronto, he’s going to jail for tax evasion. Donny immediately wreaks havoc with his boy, now renamed Todd and a rich hedge fund manager, just in time for Todd’s wedding to a high-maintenance princess (Leighton Meester). Jokes ensue about everything from masturbation to feces.
USA Today critic Claudia Puig didn’t appreciate the antics: Sandler “is hellbent on perpetrating and repurposing his annoying brand of moronic, preadolescent shtick,” she wrote. “Worse, his lowbrow comedies seem to be sinking even lower.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman was gentler: “Watching Sandler in …his latest assault on subtlety, good taste, and other values that a critic like me is supposed to trash the star for dumping on, I can’t say that I laughed a lot (though when I did laugh, it was big and loud),” he wrote. “But on some level I marveled at the conviction that Sandler pours into playing a character like Donny Berger, a boneheaded, loud-mouthed alcoholic loser.”
Time’s Mary Pols also admitted she laughed during parts of the film: “The movie is so disgusting it is worthy of the Farrelly brothers,” she opined. “It contains the longest simultaneous joke about child rape and its effects on the victim (drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.) ever made. Call me a prude, but you know, little Donny was raped….But again,” she added, “I did laugh. It’s not so much the jokes as written but the go-for-broke performances.”
The New York Times’ David Dewitt wasn’t entirely turned off, either, noting that the film’s “busily plotted second half approaches involving. It leads to a big payoff wedding, after all, and it has a large ensemble for support…Mr. Sandler manages a frame or so of genuine sentiment, and the caricature is so ugly it’s cute.”
The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan disagreed, describing the comedy as “long, choppy and deadly dull, despite sporadic efforts to defibrillate the audience back to consciousness with jokes about incest, pedophilia, incontinence and geriatric sex…So is the movie itself funny? Some people – including me – managed to appreciate a dumb joke or two. Sandler has his partisans, but the aggressive awfulness of ‘That’s My Boy” seems calculated to test even their patience.”
Some reviewers did appreciate Samberg, whose “sweet embodiment of this poor schlub is one of the few thing here that the script’s general air of hyper-sexed misanthropy can’t spoil,” Justin Chang wrote in Variety. “He even manages to bring out an element of likability in Sandler’s Donny. This is no small feat.”
Chang summed up many of the reviews I read when, while calling the film “a shameless celebration of degenerate behavior… and staggering moral idiocy,” he immediately added: “All in all, it could have been worse.”
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June 13, 2012 | 1:35 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Five years ago, at Sadie Sandler’s first birthday party, at the estate of her father, Adam Sandler, filmmaker Adam Shankman was sitting in a plastic toddler’s chair when he was startled by another guest who sat down beside him.
“He said, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Cruise,’ and I freaked out,” said Shankman, whose movie “Rock of Ages,” based on the Tony-nominated musical and starring Cruise, opens June 15. “I whipped around, and in my head I was hearing just this crazy white noise, because I’m just Adam Shankman, and I couldn’t understand why he wanted to meet me.”
Cruise proceeded to compliment Shankman on his 2007 film adaptation of the musical “Hairspray,” explaining that he and his daughter, Suri, had watched it dozens of times. “I just got so weirdly spooked that I excused myself to get some food,” Shankman recalled. And I stood up and the chair stuck to my [rear end].”
Out of that embarrassing moment came “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Shankman said. Thereafter, every time he saw Cruise, the superstar would ask him, “So when are we doing our musical?”
“In my head, I was like, never,” Shankman said in a phone interview during New Line Cinema’s “Rock of Ages” press tour in New York. As far as he knew, Cruise could neither sing nor dance. “And what were we going to do — a remake of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?
“But then the studio said they wanted to replicate the model of ‘Hairspray,’ which was to get big movie stars in a musical, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I think I know somebody.’ And I talked to Tom, and he was floored that this kind of weird notion was suddenly even possible.”
Cruise shows off his newly trained four-octave range in “Rock of Ages” — a heavy-metal saga set on the Sunset Strip in 1987 — as he belts out ditties by Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard while decked out in lace-up leather pants and a vintage coyote-fur jacket over his bare torso.
Cruise plays the fading rock god Stacee Jaxx, who gets a creative boost from two young ingénues (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) as Christian crusaders (including Catherine Zeta-Jones) protest against the evils of heavy metal.
It’s Cruise’s first musical ever: “I got like a bubbe; I was very protective of him,” Shankman said, adding that his own gay and Jewish sensibilities inform everything he does. For “Hairspray,” which tells the story of a zaftig teenager who just wants to dance in 1960s Baltimore, he turned John Travolta-in-drag “into a Jewish mother,” Shankman quipped. When he directed “A Walk to Remember,” starring Mandy Moore as a Christian teenager, “I thought it was hilarious that I was this big, gay Jew making this Christian movie.”
Shankman also admitted that he’s a worrier on par with Woody Allen, having viewed himself as “a bit of a hack” until co-producing the Oscars boosted his confidence in 2010. “If Hollywood was handing me the biggest night of the year, there’s got to be some good here,” he said, adding “You can’t live in that kind of self-loathing.”
Shankman, 47, traces his insecurities to “early shame about the gay stuff.” Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Brentwood was less fraught, even though, he said, the Shankmans were one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood in the early 1970s. Young Adam, however, made plenty of Jewish friends attending Hebrew school at University Synagogue — including his “Rock of Ages” production designer, Jon Hutman.
And his penchant for worrying didn’t prevent him from displaying a modicum of chutzpah when he auditioned for Juilliard with nary a dance lesson under his belt.
He lied his way into his first choreography gig in 1989: “I was in my roommate’s production office, bitching about how I wasn’t getting work because I wasn’t cute and blond, when suddenly a production assistant literally ran into the room and said, ‘We have an emergency — we just lost our choreographer — does anybody know one?’ ” Shankman recalled. “And without missing a beat, I said, ‘I’m a choreographer,’ which was completely untrue.”
Shankman was hired on the spot and went on to choreograph numerous videos and films before snagging his directorial debut, “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez, in 2001. Even so, he said, he mostly played things rather safe with his career until “Hairspray,” his first full-scale musical, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Then he chanced to see the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages” several years ago and was stunned by all the straight guys rocking out in the audience.
“I thought, ‘If I can make a movie musical for straight guys, I’d be like a rock god,’ ” Shankman said.
For inspiration, he drew on memories of visiting his father, a rock ‘n’ roll manager, at his offices at 9200 Sunset Blvd., and of an iconic Sunset Strip that included landmarks like Filthy McNasty’s, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and the Whisky a Go Go.
Yet Shankman’s worrying took a high note when he had to figure out whether Cruise could actually carry a tune. “To be perfectly honest, we kept avoiding the ‘Can you
sing?’ conversation,” said Shankman, who was relieved when Cruise revealed untapped talent during a session with Axl Rose’s former vocal coach, Ron Anderson, and practiced five hours a day for months to prepare for the role.
Then it was a matter of creating the Jaxx character, which Shankman did, in part, by sending Cruise an unusual screen-captured image from a costume fitting. “Tom was arched back in this slinky, weird, very un-Tom Cruise-y posture that was oddly sexual, and I e-mailed it to him and said, ‘This is who I want you to be,’ ” the director recalled. “He’s just this person who basically lives from his crotch.” It’s a debauched image that nevertheless conjures memories of the young Cruise in his underwear rocking out in that iconic scene from “Risky Business.”
There’s a melancholy to Jaxx as well as an over-the-top, sexual kind of comedy: While singing Foreigner’s wistful “I Want to Know What Love Is” with his love interest, played by Malin Akerman, the couple share the tongueiest kiss ever. “It’s not like I was going, ‘Go get her, tiger,’ ” Shankman recalled of shooting that scene. “It was more like, ‘Oh, that’s so gross, let’s move on.’ “
“Rock of Ages” opens on June 15.
June 13, 2012 | 12:55 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a sunny morning at Jerry’s Deli on Beverly Boulevard, Lisa Kudrow was laughing about the narcissistic shrink she plays on her improvised Showtime dark comedy, “Web Therapy.” “Isn’t she awful?” said Kudrow, who burst into popular culture in 1994 playing the kooky masseuse Phoebe Buffay on NBC’s megahit “Friends.” Despite her fame, the 48-year-old actress, wearing black jeans and a white blouse, didn’t attract attention even in a front booth; her low-key glamour and quietly subversive sense of humor as she dug into her oatmeal made her seem so, well, normal. Which, she drolly acknowledged, is, “thanks to therapy.”
Not from the likes of her character, the dubiously credentialed Dr. Fiona Wallice, thankfully. Wallice — as in wall-of-ice — is the planet’s most self-absorbed, money-grubbing shrink, dispensing dismal advice as she touts herself as the creator of the three-minute iChat therapy session, the better to cut through trivial issues such as patients’ thoughts and feelings. “It’s so much fun to play Fiona,” said Kudrow, whose own appealing qualities make Wallice watchable. “It’s fun to make fun of things that are stupid and merit ridicule.”
As the show’s second Showtime season premieres on July 2 (the DVD of season one hits stores June 19), Fiona is finagling to hawk her memoir, which she’s plagiarized from her doormat of an assistant (played by Dan Bucatinsky, who created the show along with Kudrow and Don Roos). She’s also trying to steal the limelight as her husband, Kip (Victor Garber), runs for Congress on the Republican ticket — requiring damage control as a result of his sexual proclivities. Meryl Streep plays Kip’s “rehabilitation” therapist; Rosie O’Donnell is a conservative Catholic publisher who hates Fiona’s book; Lily Tomlin portrays Fiona’s mother, who hates Fiona; and Conan O’Brien and David Schwimmer (“Friends”) are two of her hapless patients.
While some of Kudrow’s “Friends” co-stars have continued to embrace similarly lighthearted fare — Jennifer Aniston has become a staple of romantic comedies, and Courteney Cox stars on ABC’s guilty pleasure “Cougar Town” — Kudrow has gleaned kudos for taking on riskier characters. In addition to starring in independent films such as “The Opposite of Sex,” she earned an Emmy Award nomination for her turn as a faded sitcom star desperate to return to the limelight in HBO’s mock reality series “The Comeback.” And Webby Awards have been amply bestowed upon “Web Therapy,” which began as an Internet series on iStudio before being picked up last season by Showtime, joining the network’s slate of shows spotlighting edgy protagonists such as “Shameless” and “Nurse Jackie.”
You could call Kudrow the Opposite of Phoebe: “Life can be absurdly horrible, and I like to poke fun at the absurdly horrible,” she said. “Not everyone’s a monster — but potentially [they are]. I think it’s these extreme perceptions that fuel people’s comedy. It’s almost a neurotic thing that I have.”
“Lisa can be complicated,” Roos said in a telephone interview. “She’s certainly aware of the inequalities in life, all the systems we have that separate men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, Jews and non-Jews. I don’t think she has a rosy view of human relationships. Not that it’s a pessimistic view; it’s realistic.”
“Lisa’s comedy is an odd pairing of quirky and intellectual,” Bucatinsky said. “There is an edgy, irreverent point of view, and yet also a sort of conservative prudishness. Lisa is very devoted to her family and values her privacy. She is also sensible, reliable, whip-smart and a very loyal friend. I look to her a lot for advice and counsel.”
In person, Kudrow appears practical, empathetic and down-to-earth. Unlike many of her former co-stars, she has not been fodder for the tabloids, escaping that glare, she said matter-of-factly, “because I’m dull.” She thinks it helps that she’s been married for more than 15 years to a non-celebrity, the French businessman Michel Stern; they have a son, Julian, who is now studying for his bar mitzvah, she said, proudly.
Kudrow is equally direct when asked about complaints from some Jewish critics that characters played by Cox and Schwimmer on “Friends” were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in name only. “I don’t know how funny it is to say, well here we are Jews, sitting around in Central Perk,” she said, referring to the coffee shop hangout in the show. “It’s not out of hiding; it’s just, to me, there’s no full acceptance or equality until there’s no spotlight on a character’s religion, until it just is.”
“The Comeback” was born of Kudrow’s observations about the train wreck of reality television. “I couldn’t fathom the level of humiliation that people were signing up for in order to be famous for I don’t know how long,” she said. “And what’s happening to us that we’re just sitting around watching people humiliate themselves, and that’s our entertainment? Uh-oh.”
As for “Web Therapy,” she said, “I got the idea because it’s such a bad idea.” In the Internet oversharing culture, it seemed that perhaps the next ludicrous step might be the phenomenon of the Web shrink. “Then I thought about who might perpetrate this, and it’s obvious that she would have to have a lot of gall,” Kudrow said. “What makes me laugh about Fiona is just her brazenness; these horrible ideas that she just is very confident about. We wouldn’t have had the idea if we hadn’t already seen it in so many politicians who just say the most outrageous things but with a great deal of bravado.”
Kudrow grew up in Tarzana, where she first learned to perform improvisational comedy in a drama class while attending Portola Junior High School, but focused on biology at Taft High and later at Vassar College, aspiring to become a doctor, like her father.
Although her father is an atheist and the family did not belong to a synagogue, Kudrow chose to have a bat mitzvah “because I just felt like I needed to be counted ‘in.’ I’m Jewish, and that’s important to me,” she said. She still remembers the biography of Uta Hagen that her brother’s best friend, the actor Jon Lovitz, gave her for her bat mitzvah, inscribed with the words “to my fellow thespian.”
It was Lovitz who advised Kudrow to study with The Groundlings improvisational comedy troupe when she decided to become an actress after graduating college in the mid-1980s. Before long she was cast on the sitcom “Frasier” but was devastated when she was fired after just two days. Even so, she parlayed a one-day gig on “Mad About You,” a role so insignificant she was cast, simply, as “Waitress,” into a recurring role. Then producers came calling for “Friends,” the iconic sitcom revolving around six yuppies in New York that eventually earned Kudrow and her colleagues a reported $1 million per episode.
Kudrow credits her sweetly optimistic character of Phoebe with getting her to “loosen up, lighten up,” but the blast of fame that came with the series proved unsettling. “What I remember most vividly is when the six of us did our first big photo shoot. As we came out of the studio, there were so many photographers that it was blinding, flashing, and they were all screaming, impatient and angry to get your attention,” she said. “It just felt like an assault. But the great thing was that we could see each other every day and talk about what was happening; it was like therapy. Even at the time, we all said, ‘Thank God we can all do this together.’ “
As “Friends” entered its final seasons, her future career remained uncertain. It’s not that Kudrow didn’t try the romantic comedy route; she starred in the poorly received “Marci X,” in which she played a Jewish-American Princess who heads a controversial hip-hop record label. “That was the least happy I’ve been professionally, because you have to be adorable for [romantic comedies], and I’m not adorable; it’s just not who I am,” she said. “So I remember vowing, nobody’s ever going to hire me to do this again; I’ll try other things.”
Kudrow co-founded a production company in order to produce her own projects, took co-starring roles in films including “Wonderland” and “Analyze This,” and created NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” a show she adapted from British television in which celebrities explore their ancestry.
Initially she was reluctant to trace her own ancestry, afraid that she would uncover details about family members who had died in the Holocaust. “I had been in complete denial about that,” she said. She also didn’t see herself as a big enough name for a segment of her own — the show was featuring artists like Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee. Then a slot opened, and Kudrow found herself at the site of a vegetable warehouse in Belarus where her great-grandmother and family were forced to strip naked before being shot and falling into a pit, where their bodies were then doused with gasoline and burned. Kudrow went on to ask hard questions of the villagers — “Did you know any Jewish families? Where were your parents when this was all happening?” — as they squirmed with discomfort.
At one point while telling her family story, Kudrow said she became so emotional that she turned away from the camera. “Going to Belarus confirmed that, yes, it’s an ugly planet,” she said when we met. “But, in the second half of the show, I found a cousin of mine who is still alive in Poland, and that made me feel like there’s hope, and that good things can happen.”
Our conversation turned back to “Web Therapy,” specifically how, five years ago, she would get pitying looks when she would tell people she was working on an Internet series. Undaunted, she pursued the project as “a great experiment, because it was just two people talking at any time on computer screens.”
Today, Kudrow — who is on screen throughout almost the entire show — seems amazed that her experiment has paid off.
“The miracle of all this is that we’re on Showtime for a second season,” she said.
“Web Therapy” premieres July 2 on Showtime.
June 6, 2012 | 11:41 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Mia Schaikewitz parked her shiny black Mitsubishi Eclipse in front of her graphic design office in Pasadena, looking glamorous in her black leather jacket and purple eye shadow with matching fingernail polish. Then she opened her car door, lifted out a wheelchair and assembled it in 20 seconds flat. The chair was sporty, like her car, with a leopard-patterned seat that matched her purse. “I’ve got another chair at home that’s red and silver — it all depends on my mood and what I want to wear — it’s almost like an accessory,” she said, breezily.
“When I first got paralyzed, I used to count the seconds it took me to get into the car,” she said while hauling herself up a ramp with what looked like Herculean strength. “It was fun to see how many seconds I could shave off.”
The 34-year-old graphic designer is one of four women — all paralyzed from the waist or neck down — profiled on the Sundance Channel’s new documentary series, “Push Girls,” created by producer Gay Rosenthal (“Ruby”) and premiering this week. Schaikewitz, who is Jewish, has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in her spinal cord when she was 15; her good friends Angela Rockwood, 37, Auti Angel, 42, and Tiphany Adams, 29, were all paralyzed in car accidents more than 10 years ago.
In a trend of reality television that includes the sensationalist “Housewives” franchises, “Push Girls” stands out for its non-sensational depiction of women who can’t walk but are also gorgeous, athletic and ambitious. Rockwood is hoping to jump-start her former modeling career; Angel — reportedly the first professional hip-hop dancer to continue her professional career in a wheelchair — is trying to have a baby with her husband of five years; Adams is exploring a lesbian relationship after a bad breakup; and Schaikewitz is grappling with whether to stay with her boyfriend while reassessing her relationship with her mother and tackling competitive swimming for the first time since high school.
She agreed to participate in “Push Girls,” she said, “because I want to show people areas where they think we get stuck, and we don’t. But I also want to reveal the unsentimental realities of our lives, without being preachy. It’s answering all the questions people might be afraid to ask us: How do we go grocery shopping, go to the bathroom, go to clubs or the gym?”
In the premiere episode, we first see Schaikewitz as she is snuggling in bed with her boyfriend; the camera follows her as she nimbly transfers from her chair into the bathtub, where she showers sitting down with her knees hugged tightly to her chest. “The question people most ask is whether we can have sex, and the answer is definitely yes,” Schaikewitz told me. “And most people haven’t seen ‘sexy’ in a wheelchair, which is why they can’t fathom it.”
Schaikewitz attended a Jewish day school in Atlanta, where her father became Modern Orthodox after her parents divorced when she was 3. She still remembers her bat mitzvah speech at his synagogue, where she discussed Rabbi Akiva’s parable about how water can carve stone. It was a lesson in persistence Schaikewitz said she drew upon after she became paralyzed during her freshman year in high school.
The date was Oct. 27, 1993, when Schaikewitz, then a rising star on her school’s swim team, developed a pain in her side so sharp that it awakened her from sleep that night. By the time doctors took an MRI the next morning, she could no longer move her legs. The news was beyond unsettling: A defect in her circulatory system had caused a stroke in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
“At first I was devastated; I thought my life was over,” she said. “I even wrote in my journal, ‘I’ll never go out in public again,’ and I cried for two weeks straight. But that was the best part of it — the darkest part, but also the catalyst for me to realize that’s not a way to live.” She was inspired when the doctors reassured her that she could live independently, have children and participate in adaptive sports.
“We do learn to be reborn again,” she said of her three months in a rehabilitation hospital. “From sitting up in bed to getting dressed, you learn everything over again, and it seems daunting at first. But as you continue taking baby steps, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Her confidence grew as she was welcomed back at high school, then went on to become the first person in a wheelchair to join a sorority at the University of Florida, and, for a time, became religiously observant when a rabbi who shared her views about disability inspired her. “It has a lot to do with still having choices and control over your life,” said Schaikewitz, who still attends synagogue and Jewish events in Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past dozen years.
The day she graduated from college, Schaikewitz loaded her wheelchair in the back seat of a friend’s Saturn and drove out to Los Angeles to start her career in media production; she’s now a project manager for a graphic design firm. She met Rockwood — who was paralyzed on her way to a fitting for her wedding dress — when she enrolled in an acting class that met at the model’s Hollywood home. “Angela is a quadriplegic, but she still does everything she can do and lives life to the fullest,” Schaikewitz said of their connection.
It was Rockwood who invited Schaikewitz to participate in “Push Girls”; Schaikewitz signed on, even though she describes herself as “an intensely private person,” partly to shatter stereotypes about the disabled. “People think we can only date people in wheelchairs, that we’re lucky to get any guy, that we can’t be picky,” she said by way of example. On the show, she says she loves her freedom so much that she doesn’t want to settle down with just anyone, as well as frankly describing her preference for able-bodied men who can keep up with her.
Schaikewitz also decides on camera to swim again for the first time in 17 years; while she had previously participated in numerous adaptive sports, swimming proved too emotionally difficult, reminding her of the time she lost use of her legs. But her first trip to the pool proves triumphant. “I was just finally ready to do it,” she said. “It was time to just close the book, so to speak.”
“Push Girls” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.
May 17, 2012 | 12:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When the news came that Donna Summer—the disco diva who rose to fame with pulsing hits such as “Last Dance” and “Bad Girl” – died today at 63, Jewish publicist Michael Levine called with some memories of the cultural icon. “I grew up in New York, and when she became a big star, I could never in a thousand years imagine that I would get to meet her, much less represent her,” said Levine, who was Summer’s publicist for about a year back in 2002.
At the time, the performer was struggling to reinvent herself, Levine said: “She felt very strongly that she was kind of a victim of her own success,” recalled Levine, founder of LCO public relations, who has represented some 34 Grammy Award winners. “She had a tremendously embedded image of someone who was a disco diva, and she wanted to move her career beyond that.”
Summer was focusing more on pop rock, and also had become a born-again Christian: “Beyond her music, she was deeply committed to her spirituality and her religion,” Levine said. “She would have Bible study classes at her house and even invited me to attend.”
Levine said he and Summer discussed whether to address the debate that had erupted when she was accused of making anti-gay statements relating to the AIDS crisis some years prior. “She claimed she didn’t make any [such] remarks,” Levine said. “But she didn’t want to get involved in the controversy. We talked a lot about whether she wanted to address the controversy, and she didn’t.”
Levine remembers Summer, then in her early 50s, as a performer with “a deeply, deeply burning sense of ambition and drive….She had more damn energy than people I represent who are in their early 20s. And she was very gracious,” he added. Whenever she came to our office she would bring a gift, which is unique, because most people don’t.”
In 2008, Summer performed on “American Idol” and released her first full studio album in 17 years, titled “Crayons.” She is survived by her husband, singer Bruce Sudano, three daughters and four grandchildren.
“Early this morning, we lost Donna Summer Sudano, a woman of many gifts, the greatest being her faith,” Summer’s family said in a statement today. “While we grieve her passing, we are at peace celebrating her extraordinary life and her continued legacy.”
May 17, 2012 | 10:04 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The reviews are in for Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator,” ladies and gentlemen, and while there are pans and mixed notices, a number of the some 20 top critics I perused had good things to say about Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest spoof—mostly praising his social satire or crass comic antics to some degree.
First a bit about the plot: Admiral Gen. Aladeen (Baron Cohen) is Supreme Leader of a fictional North African country called Wadiya, and he’s been summoned to New York to address the United Nations about his nuclear weapons buildup. Once in New York, however, he’s kidnapped, replaced with a body double (a goatherd) and finds refuge with a hippie-ish green grocer, Zoey (Anna Faris), who has alarming patches of armpit hair and whom he refers to as a “lesbian hobbit.” A romance, natch, ensues, as do shenanigans involving the Israeli delegation to the United Nations (the klutzy goatherd accidentally pours urine on the diplomats, prompting the real Aladeen to enthuse, “That’s a good one.”)
Suffice it to say, the dictator makes it to the U.N. in time to deliver a rousing speech that skewers American democracy – or lack thereof. Along the way, there are plenty of jokes involving rape, torture, severed heads, masturbation and anti-Semitism – not to mention a full-frontal image of Baron Cohen’s flaccid member crashing into a hotel window.
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers singled out gags such as “Zoey schooling her new squeeze in the how-to of jerking off and Aladeen panicking American tourists during a chopper ride over Manhattan.” “’The Dictator’ zigs and zag through its scant 84 minutes as if running wild to save its crazy ass,” Travers writes. “Oddly enough, this is a good thing…[it] leaves you laughing helplessly. It starts at outrageous and rockets on from there. Screw the occasional splutter.”
Ebert went so far as to claim that with “The Dictator,” Baron Cohen “establishes a claim as the best comic filmmaker now working. And in a speech about dictatorships, he practices merciless political satire.” The film “is funny,” he writes, “in addition to being obscene, disgusting, scatological [note: Osama bin Laden is the butt of some of the poop jokes] vulgar, crude and so on.”
More kudos came from NPR’s David Edelstein, who wrote that while “the film doesn’t approach the greatest of all American anti-war farces, the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup,’ Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles are certainly in the arena. In a climactic speech, Aladeen extols the benefits of a dictatorship over a democracy, which gives leaders, he says, power to declare war unilaterally, violate civil liberties, and structure the economy so the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. The speech is a triumph over the satirist’s art.”
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott disagreed, noting that “There is nothing especially outrageous here. The movie’s blend of self-aware insult humor, self-indulgent grossness, celebrity cameos and strenuous whimsy represents a fairly standard recipe for sketch-comedy-derived feature films.” Moreover, he adds, the film “gestures halfheartedly toward topicality and, with equal lack of conviction, toward pure, anarchic silliness.”
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, meanwhile, said the dictator’s budding romance with Zoey “invites nonstop jokes about lesbianism, underarm hair and fundamental cultural and political understandings. “’The police here are so fascist!’” Zoey cries after Aladeen is temporarily taken into custody. ‘Yeah, and not in a good way!’ Aladeen retorts. That’s one of the few throwaway lines that is genuinely amusing in ‘The Dictator,’ which never achieves the stinging parodic heights of Cohen’s ‘Borat’ movie, but manages a better batting average than his most recent misfire, ‘Bruno.’….an early stunt involving a Wii game based on the 1972 Munich Olympics falls flatter than a stale matzo, a running gag about Hollwood stars selling sexual favors quickly loses steam and it can be stipulated that rape jokes simply aren’t funny.”
Whether or not viewers laugh at “The Dictator,” it’s clearly one of the most unabashedly Jewish films this season, as Baron Cohen skewers anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments with impunity. I liked the Wii joke, and so did Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir: “We see the bearded North African tyrant Admiral General Aladeen…playing a first-person-shooter video game called ‘Munich Olympics.’ You’re groaning already, right? Here’s how it works: You knock on the door marked ‘Israeli Olympic Team.’ When a cute little Smurf-like creaure in a yarmulke and side-curls answers the door – ‘Shalom!’ – a pop-up widget announces ‘Shoot the Jew!’ and you waste him…This is funny precisely because it’s not funny…let’s remember that we’re talking about a guy who has cited World War II-era historican Ian Kershaw, who was one of his professors at Cambridge, as a major influence.”
While Aladeen dislikes Jews and Israel, Baron Cohen and his co-screenwriters, Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaeffer, deliberately keep his ethnicity vague. “’I’m not an Arab’,” he says at one point, and ‘The Dictator,’ directed by Larry Charles, carefully avoids references to Islam,” A.O. Scott notes. “Is this precaution enough to prevent the movie from giving offense? Probably not. But it may be enough to turn the tables on anyone who decides to take offense, which is really the point.”
Even so, The Wrap reported that “While Baron Cohen’s shtick may be in good fun, some Arab groups and experts aren’t in on the joke, believing the comedian has perpetuated negative stereotypes that go back to the early days of Hollywood.” Omar Baddar, New Media Coordinator for the Arab American Institute “argued that there was a double standard – that an anti-Jewish stereotype would never pass muster in Hollywood.” Other observers complained “not that Arabs are portrayed negatively, but that they were not cast in the film.”
Baron Cohen, meanwhile, was busy promoting his film in character at the Cannes Film Festival Wednesday, where he was nearly unseated by his camel as he ordered his virgin bodyguards to point their assault rifles at the press.
However, he did take time to answer a question about the Arab spring, posed via email by The Forward’s Dan Friedman: “I think that the Arab Spring is a passing fad, like the Atkins diet, or human rights, and you’ll find that pretty soon it will turn into the Crackdown Summer, Torture Fall and Execution Winter,” Baron-Cohen-as-dictator emailed Friedman. “But you know the Arab Spring could have been avoided. I told Mubarak a thousand times: “If you get Wi-Fi in your palace, put a f**king password on it. The people will start using it.”
Here’s another question Friedman posed in his Q & A:
DF: Did you ever use any products of the Jewish hairstylist and anti-racism fighter Vidal Sassoon, who recently passed away?
Sacha Baron Cohen: Wait — Vidal Sassoon was a Jew?! But the secret behind my luxuriously masculine beard is using one whole bottle of Vidal Sassoon Fortifying Shampoo each day. Now I must cleanse it of its Zionism by paying for an overpriced beard trim that does not include tip, and then afterward I won’t even complain about it! Well, I know who was behind this: the Mossad!
“The Dictator” is now in theaters.
May 16, 2012 | 1:45 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Tanya Wexler’s film, “Hysteria,” a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England opening May 18, begins with a note to the audience: “This story is based on true events.
It’s preposterous from a 21st century perspective, but back in the 1880s the vibrator was used as a cure-all for the (bogus) diagnosis of “hysteria,” a catchall phrase for symptoms such as nymphomania, frigidity, and melancholia, as we’re told in the film, as well as just being unhappy with one’s husband or – gasp – a suffragette. The malady “stems from an overactive uterus,” we’re told. And the, er, hands-on treatment was “manual massage to paroxysm,” which was regarded as a perfectly non-sexual release of the nervous system, but is – in translation – an orgasm. All of this was accomplished perfectly clinically in the doctor’s office, as the women, decked out in full Victorian garb, spread their legs behind a curtain.
These historical facts struck the 41-year-old Wexler (“Finding North,” “Ball in the House”) – as well as her screenwriters, Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer—as hysterical. “Both the doctors and the patients seemed not to realize that there was anything sexual going on, and that just made me laugh so hard, like you can’t see the nose on your face, so to speak, ba-dump-bump,” Wexler said, with a resounding laugh at the Four Seasons hotel recently. “It’s like they got the cure right, and the disease wrong.
“But if you make a film about the invention of the vibrator, and that’s the joke, it’s maybe a 15-minute sketch, so for me the joke was about the cultural denial that was going on,” she added. “People back then didn’t think women’s sexuality existed.”
The idea for the movie came to Wexler via producer Tracey Becker, who suggested the vibrators-and-Victorians premise. “I [immediately] said, ‘I’m in,’” Wexler said with another booming laugh.
While the concept of hysteria and its massage “cure” is historically accurate, the story and characters are largely fictionalized. There really was a Dr. Mortimer Granville, who invented an electrical device called Granville’s Hammer—ostensibly to be used for soothing muscle aches but which was quickly appropriated to scratch another kind of itch. A fictional version of Granville is the hero of the film; as played by Hugh Dancy, he’s an idealistic young doctor who goes to work for hysteria expert Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), who literally needs another set of hands to service the women of all ages who frequent his clinic. The fictional Mortimer eventually invents the vibrator as a laborsaving device after he gets hand cramps from massaging women all day long.
Along the way, he romances Dalrymple’s prim daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones) while sparring with his older daughter, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a champion of women’s rights, as romantic sparks fly.
The film is the latest in a series of projects that aim to realistically depict women’s sexuality: In David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” (2011), Keira Knightley’s character suffers violent outbursts as a result of sadomasochistic desires stemming from childhood abuse; in HBO’s “Girls,” created by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, four twentysomething New York galpals are often reduced to bad sex on filthy couches.
In person, Wexler is a hoot, delivering one-liners at lightning speed, coming off more like a bawdy comedian than the director of a film about Victorian morays. Raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father in Chicago, Wexler said she strongly identifies as Jewish, quipping that while she’s unsure how many Jewish women used vibrators in the late 19th century, “If you’re really tired, it’s probably a bummer on Shabbat.”
Wexler had to watch her tribal sense of humor while making the movie: “I had to pull back from my Borsht Belt sensibilities,” she said. “There’s an old sitcom saying, ‘Think Yiddish, speak British,’ and in a way, there are a lot of those kinds of jokes in my movie. They could’ve been done with, like, Shecky Green and a rim shot, but we had people in these ridiculous dresses saying the lines. I know there was, underneath, a bit of shtick, but having proper Victorian people say it just made it all the funnier.”
So how did Wexler approach all those treatments to “paroxysm?” “It’s funny, but in my head, I just knew how to shoot them instantly,” she recalled. “Jonathan’s character had a ‘This is like polishing furniture’ kind of approach; ‘it’s just tiresome, tedious work.’ And Mortimer had a more scientific approach. And the women were in full corsets, full dresses and hats, which is just ridiculous and therefore funny.
“I knew it was about the reaction shots – the contrast between what the women were experiencing which were orgasms, and what the guys were experiencing, which was science and technology and labor and work. But the thing I was most concerned about with the orgasm scenes was getting the sound right, because I didn’t want it to sound too porn-y, and if it sounded too comic, we wouldn’t believe it either…. In the end, we realized that if the women sounded like they were having fun and enjoying themselves and laughing, it worked.”
I had to ask Wexler: What were the good doctors actually touching during the massage sequences? “I was very concerned that Hugh and Jonathan would have something to actually manipulate, because it changes how you stand and how your body weight falls,” Wexler replied. “I spent nights up before we shot trying to figure out what to put down there, and I had all sorts of ridiculous ideas. And Hugh looked around and said, ‘There’s always a million sand bags available on the set to hold down the lights – why don’t we take one of them, put it under the curtain and be done with it?’ And it was too simple; it was just perfect. But Jonathan Pryce got so into it that he rubbed the skin off the knuckle of one of his fingers.”
Wexler gifted modern vibrators to every member of her cast and crew; when that raised eyebrows among some of the men, she offered some practical advice. “Dude, it’s not competition, it’s a member of your team,” she said.
“Hysteria” opens on May 18.
May 11, 2012 | 8:18 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
However the reviews may fall for “The Dictator,” Sacha Baron Cohen’s first scripted film, the comedy certainly offers some bits for The Tribe – – mostly skewing anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiments—and with plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish words peppered into his dictator-speak [SPOILER ALERT]:
- Admiral Gen. Haffaz Aladeen of the North African country of Wadiya (who, by the way, is not an Arab) has been summoned to New York to address the United Nations on concerns he’s developing nuclear weapons on the sly. He struggles not to giggle as he insists his weapons-grade uranium will be used only for medical research and clean energy – “and certainly never to attack Is—“ he says, catching himself before naming the Jewish state.
- Just before deciding to journey to New York after all (his umpteenth double has been assassinated), The Dictator relaxes by playing a Wii game in which a mellifluous female voice announces, “Welcome to the Munich Olympics.” With his “Jewdar” on, the Supreme Leader blasts away at bearded avatars that shout “shalom,” “oy vey” and “meshuggeneh” as they implode.
- After Aladeen is kidnapped, stripped of his Matisyahu-like beard and left helpless on the streets of New York, a shlemiely dictator look-alike steps in for Aladeen at the United Nations. The imposter, a former goatherd, proceeds to pee in a pitcher, drink it – and then accidentally spills it all over the Israeli delegation, which is apparently doubling for Ryan Seacrest. “Good one,” says the impressed real Aladeen, who is watching the antics on TV.
- Alone and desperate in Brooklyn, The Dictator is about to jump off a bridge when he is rescued by his former top scientist, Nuclear Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), who is startled when Aladeen calls him a “schmuck.” “Why are you speaking Yiddish?” Nadal asks, as the despot explains that he picked it up in New York. “I don’t like the people,” Aladeen says of Jews, “but I like the way their words sound like what they mean.” Scoffs Nadal, “I’m sorry, but did I get the evite to your bar mitzvah?”
- Finally re-ensconced as Dictator, Aladeen weds Zoe (Anna Faris), a grocer he has befriended in New York, in a lavish ceremony. There’s just one problem – at the conclusion of the ceremony Zoe breaks a glass, explaining that it’s a tradition among her people. ‘I’m Jewish – mazel tov,” she declares, as Aladeen hugs her close – and beckons to his executioner.
“The Dictator” opens on May 16.