Monday Movies: When Jews Were Funny and I, Frankenstein

Jewish comedy deconstructed with style in Zweig doc; I Frankenstein a poorly sewn together beast of a film

Kvetching about comedy

There’s a personal aspect to the films of writer-director Alan Zweig (I, Curmudgeon), and rarely moreso than with When Jews Were Funny. His documentary makes the claim that Jews have a special style of humour, and performers like Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and Rodney Dangerfield profoundly influenced comedy in North America. Things get off to a rocky start with Zweig’s first interview, as the legendary Shelley Berman, a bit confused and grumpy, repudiates Zweig’s thesis about the uniqueness of Jewish comedy. The pace then picks up considerably as more contemporary comics such as Gilbert Gottfried and David Steinberg flesh out Zweig’s notion with insights about how the oppression experienced by immigrant Jews was translated into passive-aggressive wit.

“Comedy was Jewish jazz,” explains Mark Breslin, founder of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy chain, explaining that the rhythm of Jewish comics was inherited from Yiddish. “And it was used as an expression of our frustration and powerlessness,” he adds. Many classic jokes are proffered throughout the film (as well as great archival footage, including some of Henny Youngman tossing off his signature quips). Most of the jokes are too long to quote, but here’s one that neatly captures the Jewish tradition of kvetching: “A waiter walks up to a table of older Jewish women and asks, ‘Is anything alright?’ ”

For Zweig, humour like that represents the uniqueness of Jewish character – which he fears is becoming terribly diluted now that Jews have become integrated into North American society. And as Zweig solicits nostalgic memories from his interview subjects, his questions about the meaning of Jewishness reach the proportion of an existential crisis. A few interviewees become concerned about his malaise, with one female comic half-jokingly suggesting he needs therapy. In short, Funny isn’t a laugh riot as much as it is an intriguing ride-along with a bunch of hilarious, smart, self-aware characters you’d love to visit a deli with.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

I, Frankfurter

Forget Rob Ford and Justin Bieber, the real bad boy last week was a dog of a movie called I, Frankenstein. This ponderous supernatural thriller stars Victor Frankenstein’s “monster,” that poor creature stitched together from spare body parts collected from the graveyard and “refreshed” with a few jolts of electricity. In this version, Aaron Eckhart plays the sullen outcast who, early in the movie, is set upon by a squad of demons. A scrappy street brawler with an impressive six-pack, he does an impressive job of defending himself. He also gets some help from flying gargoyles who – wouldn’t you know it? – are angelic intermediaries who spend most of the time sitting in stony silence on the roofs of gothic churches but occasionally fight their mortal enemies.

As the movie jumps two centuries into the modern day, it seems that the demons are still hunting “Adam” (as he was christened by the gargoyle queen), as he is the key to a dire plot to reanimate a corpse army and take over the planet. And Adam, after sulking for 200 years, has decided to team up with the gargoyles and save the human race – mostly because he’s found a sexy blonde doctor who thinks he’s kinda cute, notwithstanding all his stitches and that bad attitude.

So, after starting with this stunningly stupid premise, pilfering visual ideas from good movies such as The Matrix, making do with awful dialogue and tedious plot exposition, then electrifying the resulting shambles with endless jolts of CGI, Frankenstein was sent staggering towards the multiplex in a crude and joyless approximation of cinematic entertainment.

Rating: ★

(When Jews Were Funny runs Wed.-Thurs., Feb. 5-6 at UVic’s Cinecenta; I, Frankenstein continues at the Westshore & SilverCity)

 

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