In the Diaspora: The self-hate kid

Ben Stiller is again doing his virtuoso turn as the Jewish nebbish.

October 3, 2007 12:48
4 minute read.
Freedman, Samuel, columnist 88

Freedman, samuel 88. (photo credit: )


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At multiplexes throughout America today, a remake of the 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid opens, this version not coincidentally starring Ben Stiller. It's always risky to ascribe much serious import to any movie directed by the Farrelly brothers, those auteurs of frat-boy raunchiness, but this particular one and its star raise all sorts of issues of Jewish self-hate. The original version of The Heartbreak Kid was simultaneously a triumph of Jewish humor and a lesson in Jewish humiliation. Written by Neil Simon and directed by Elaine May, the movie followed two Jewish newlyweds through a catastrophic honeymoon. As the wife falls victim to all manner of tics and hypochondria, the husband falls in love with a gentile, played in all her gossamer radiance and calculating iciness by Cybill Shepherd. From the outset, The Heartbreak Kid was a critics' darling, gaining two Oscar nominations and being listed on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 funniest comedies. Yet in both its text and its subtext, it quivered somewhere on the border between self-satire and self-laceration. You have to wonder what would have made Elaine May cast her own daughter, Jeannie Berlin, as the pathetic, betrayed bride. IN THINKING about the new version, though, I am more intrigued and troubled by the character of Lenny, the feckless husband, and by the actor who inhabits him this time around. I have only the ubiquitous film trailer to go by thus far, but from the looks of it, once again Ben Stiller is doing his virtuoso turn as the Jewish nebbish. From movie to movie, sometimes Stiller's character is overtly Jewish and sometimes he is implicitly Jewish. Invariably, though, the character is a compendium of stereotypes about Jewish men - physically incompetent, romantically bumbling, cowardly, dominated by his woman or his in-laws. It seems no accident to me that the signal image of a Ben Stiller comedy has him being smacked, kicked, or in one case bitten by a ferret in his groin, an almost ritualistic emasculation. The standard narrative of Hollywood has Jews running the show, and indeed they disproportionately dominated film and television studios. But as we learn from some of the best histories on the subject - Neil Gabler's An Empire of Their Own, David Zurawik's The Jews of Prime Time - Jewish clout was matched only by Jewish insecurity. For decades, Jewish actors changed their names (and sometimes their noses) and Jewish characters were either denuded of their ethnicity (The Goldbergs) or made into self-mocking parodies of it (The Nanny). Much, of course, has changed for the better in an era when Sex In The City portrayed the Jewish lawyer Harry as such a mensch that the arch-WASP Charlotte converted in order to marry him. But the Ben Stiller oeuvre demonstrates that there's still plenty of mileage, and a lot of filthy lucre, left in the hoary old caricature. Stiller has proven himself an actor of impressive range, whether onstage in a splendid revival of John Guare's House of Blue Leaves or as a heroin-addicted writer in the film Permanent Midnight. He even did a respectable turn as a rabbi in the otherwise forgettable movie Keeping the Faith. Over the last decade or so, though, he has returned repeatedly to the stock character of the Jewish shlub, from Something About Mary to Along Came Polly to Meet the Parents and its sequel Meet the Fockers. There's nothing new about a performer becoming the financial captive of a role, or a certain type of role. Eugene O'Neill's father James sacrificed his career as a Shakespearean to endlessly tour in the title role of The Count of Monte Cristo. Yul Brynner kept playing the King of Siam even when he was decades too old for the part and dying of lung disease. Audiences could not get enough. Similarly, Ben Stiller has turned into a powerful box-office draw - his films have collectively grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide - by supplying ever-so-slight variations on the same hapless, awkward, sexually incompetent schlemiel. In Meet the Fockers, it was his parents, wickedly well-acted by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, who had all the bedroom fun. Nothing in the Jewish experience should be out of bounds for lampoon. Our ability to "send up ourselves" is a sign of confidence and security. Nobody, though, would ever confuse Stepin Fetchit with Richard Pryor, and Ben Stiller has been making a career out of a similar kind of pandering. Decades ago, with Annie Hall, Woody Allen gave up the shtick that was already making him rich - the nattering, stumbling incompetent - to start writing and playing parts more like the athletic, intellectual, sexually successful person he actually was. His best films, Annie Hall and Manhattan, came as a result. Here's hoping that Ben Stiller, after cashing his checks for The Heartbreak Kid, can take a lesson from Allen's example, to say nothing of Zionism, and make himself into a new Jewish man.

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