Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas 2016: December 24

The Hebrew Hammer (2003)

When it comes to movies specifically about Hanukkah, one's options are limited. I really didn't feel like exposing myself to “Eight Crazy Nights” this year and the likes of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Serious Man” are more about the overall Jewish experiences, then singularly the Festival of Lights. But that's when I remembered “The Hebrew Hammer.” I remember seeing the film advertised on Comedy Central years ago. The premise – a Jewish take on the blaxploitation genre – sounded amusing. Considering the shabbat of Hanukkah fell on Christmas Eve this year, a film directly about the conflict between the eight night feast and the Christmas season seemed like ideal viewing.

Mordechai Jefferson Carver is the Hebrew Hammer. His Hasidic Jewish upbringing made him a target of bullying as a kid. As an adult, he's reinvented himself as a tough guy private eye, making the world safe for all his Semitic brothers and sisters. The Jewish Justice League requires his specific set of skills. Santa's virulently racist son, Damian Claus, has murdered his father. As the new Santa, Damian plans on wiping out Hanukkah and any other holiday that threatens Christmas' dominance of the winter months.

“The Hebrew Hammer” is a parody of blaxploitation films through the lens of Jewish culture, “Undercover Brother” by way of Woody Allen. The mash-up proves surprisingly versatile. Mordechai is usually backed by a funky soundtrack... Which mixes in Klezmer fiddles.  His theme song is clearly patterned after Shaft's. His uniform of choice is a silken trench coat outfitted with a kippah and tallit. Probably the trade mark scene of the film has the Hammer taking out a bar full of Neo-Nazis, after declaring “Shabbat shalom, motherfuckers!” An especially amusing sequence has Mordechai seducing his love interest, which he does by promising her a stable home, a child, and a private school education for the hypothetical offspring.

Accordingly, “The Hebrew Hammer” both embraces and mocks Jewish stereotypes for its humor. Mordechai's mother guilts him into saving Hanukkah. These Jewish guilt superpowers end up saving the day. In order to be granted access to the Jewish Justice League's headquarter, he has to prove his Jewishness. Which entails revealing his circumcision and, in one of my favorite jokes in the film, complain excessively. Another hilarious sequence has the Hebrew Hammer going undercover as a gentile, in order to meet Santa at K-Mart. He adopts a super stiff posture and is tempted by a bacon cheeseburgers. I suppose these gags are super obvious but, I don't know, they made me laugh pretty hard.

While a happy sense of absurdity characterizes most of the film, some of its gags border the uncomfortable. Among the Jewish Justice League is someone responsible for overseeing the Jewish Controlled Media. Damian Claus regales Christian children with stories of blood libel. The Hebrew Hammer is rendered powerless once the sun sets on the sabbath. A specific slur is used a few times, by both Mordechai's allies and enemies. I get what the film is doing – ironically mocking anti-Semitic stereotypes – but it's not quite clever enough to pull it off. A subplot concerning a group of militant Kwanzaa celebrators comes a little too close to being offensive. Some of the jokes just aren't funny. Like Tony Cox's appearance as an elf who happens to be a pimp or Mordechai's mother having an incontinent pet cat.

The script is a little bumpy but the cast helps sell even some of the lamer gags. Adam Goldberg, who I recognize from “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” stars as Mordechai. Goldberg's blend of neurotic self-loathing and assured macho fervor is the perfect mix required for this part. The much underappreciated Judy Greer co-stars as Esther, who alternates between being the straight man to Goldberg's antics and being his fawning love interest. The script transition isn't quite there but Greer is funny. Andy Dick's coked-out manic activity is well suited to the villainous role of Damian Claus. The character might not totally work but Mario Van Peebles is perfectly tuned as the leader of the black militants. His dad cameos, one of several homages to “Sweetback Sweetback's Baadassssss Song.”

“The Hebrew Hammer's” minuscule budget is evident at times, as most of the film takes place in a series of warehouses. Like a lot of parodies, the film's energy runs low before the ending. Despite its flaws, “The Hebrew Hammer” is an enjoyable cult classic. Goldberg and writer/director Jonathan Kesselman have been trying to get a sequel made, about the Hebrew Hammer fighting a time-traveling Hitler, for a while now. It looks like production has stalled but, if that ever surfaces, I'll be very likely to give it a look. [7/10]

Rugrats: A Rugrats Chanukah

It might be hard to believe now but, once upon a time, “Rugrats” was a genuine kid show phenomenon. I was at just the right age to be swept up in the craze. My parents, on the other hand, fucking hated this show. Watching now as an adult, I can see why “Rugrats” was so repellent to my mom. The character designs are hideous. The humor combines overly crude poo-and-snot jokes with obnoxious “baby-ified” pronunciations of common words. “Rugrats” is, however, one of the first kid cartoons I can think of to really draw attention to its characters' Jewish roots. The special episodes devoted to Jewish holidays probably introduced a whole generation of gentile kids to Passover and Hanukkah.

That's cool. Whether or not I could stomach an entire episode of “Rugrats” as an adult is another question all together. Many of the gags in “A Rugrats Channukah” are a bit hard to stomach. The babies imagining themselves as the Maccabees is cringe-worthy, as are barely-there gags like the events of the Torah being shown as a kid's pop-up book. The babies' objective for this episode revolves around them mishearing “meaning” as “meanie,” which is dumb. The episode also features a lot of Angelica, easily one of the most obnoxious characters in nineties children broadcasting. Her goal, searching through the synagogue for a TV so she can watch a toy-centric Christmas special, typifies what a little bitch she is. (Though I was amused by her describing Hanukkah as the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when all the best TV specials are on.)

However, I did get a few laughs out of “A Rugrats Chanukah.” The B-plot concerns Tommy's Russian Jew grandparents, especially Grandpa Boris' long-standing rivalry with Schlomo. This comes to a peak during the Hanukkah play. The two eventually put aside their differences, in order to tell the story of the first Hanukkah to the kids. The Hanukkah festival setting for the second half provides some nice gags. Such as a guy dressed as a dreidel falling over, causing a by-stander to declare he's won. Later, the same dreidel guy declares he's got a broken “shin.” Both of those moments made me laugh harder then they probably should've. So “Rugrats” isn't really on my wavelength any more but the educational aspect is interesting. [5/10]

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