Using Gefilte Fish for Nefarious Purposes
Adapted with affection from the off-Broadway play by Bryan Fogel and Sam Wolfson, Jewtopia is a broad cultural caricature. Indeed, the central stereotypes are so familiar that even I, a millennial of North African extraction who’s never set foot in the United States, knows them.
It’s probably worth a small disclaimer at this juncture: growing up, my idea of what it was to be an American Jewish person was heavily informed by Woody Allen’s nervous, round-shouldered over-thinkers. In other words, I’m probably not Jewtopia‘s target audience. Yet, I get both the stereotypes and the jokes about them as soon as the film introduces uber-Gentile Christian (Ivan Sergei), still heartbroken over his long-ago split from his college girlfriend Rebecca (Crystal Reed), who states that their relationship has no future, since he, unlike her, is not Jewish.
After some wallowing, Christian makes it his mission to seek out another Jewish girlfriend, since, as he states more than once, “I never want to make another decision” for the rest of his life. That’s Jewtopia’s most troubling stereotype in a single sentence: every single woman here micromanages the man in her life to distraction, in one case driving him to an actual breakdown. Christian manages to meet and charm one of the movie’s less neurotic women, Alison (Jennifer Love Hewitt). Her eminently reasonable, sweet exterior aside, her peers and relatives are all obsessed with marriage and continuing the bloodline. I couldn’t help wondering: would a Jewish American woman watching this just roll her eyes, laugh, and shrug here? Or would she walk out of the movie theatre, affronted?
I’d do the former, if watching a romantic comedy about Muslim families with English (or American) accents navigating the minefield of dating, religion, and family expectations. But, those are few and far between, since so British films about Muslims (for instance, East is East) concentrate on the Asian experience. The nearest mainstream representation my siblings and I saw of our experience was My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with its big hair, big portions, and legions of aunts whose primary occupations are matchmaking and competitive hypochondria. So, I take what I can get, and find something to recognize in Jewtopia’s sometimes claustrophobic depiction of family and community.
With a pleasing democracy, Jewtopia—now available on VOD—doesn’t just lampoon the girls: Christian’s best friend growing up is nerdy Jewish boy Adam (Joel David Moore), one of those aforementioned over-thinkers, who wins Christian over with his willingness to befriend an outsider. In what might be a slight overreaction to a failed prank, Christian’s gruff, beery, gun-toting dad (Peter Stormare), a man who matches my unshakable, if unsophisticated, mental image of a Republican male, drags Christian off to start yet another new school. The friends reconnect years later, when Christian decides to enlist Adam in helping him “act like a Jew” to win Alison’s heart.
Since having Christian convert for love would be far too lengthy and serious a solution to his problem, cue some embarrassing hijinks in which Christian deploys carefully memorized Yiddish phrases, and uses gefilte fish for nefarious purposes. There are circumcision jokes aplenty, and, as if to maintain an all-purpose offensiveness, an extended gross-out riff on the perils of gynaecology at the dinner table, too.
Such talky moments remind us that Jewtopia started as a stage play, though for the most part, it transcends the propensity for adaptions to seem stilted on screen. The performances throughout are entertaining, and match the exaggerated characters without being irritating. Wendie Malik as Alison’s over-protective mother turns in the most convincing and humane performance of them all, brittle but not monstrous. But Jewtopia can’t quite use friendly familiarity as an excuse when it trots out a hackneyed pair of comic, one-note Hispanics with thick accents: their slapstick tips over into outright contempt.
Still, the film is mostly redeemed by its breezy refusal to take anything, even a nervous breakdown, seriously. It proves tough to dislike Christian’s genial, well-meaning oafishness. It’s also worth sticking around for scenes in which the parents trade one-liners, and a hilariously awful mock infomercial partway through the end credits.