Film review of Snatched

May 27, 2017

This film review of “Snatched” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 18 May 2017.

Directed by Jonathan Levine; written by Katie Dippold; starring Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Joan Cusack, Ike Barinholtz, Wanda Sykes and Christopher Meloni

As a mother-daughter adventure caper film, “Snatched” manages to be both terribly old-fashioned and edgily contemporary. With two Jewish stars in the lead – comic Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn as her mother – “Snatched” is worth a look, particularly for groups of women looking for a female-centred action film.  Just keep your expectations low.

“Snatched” comes with a great comic pedigree. Teaming Amy Schumer with Goldie Hawn – one of the best American comic actresses of her generation (“Private Benjamin”, “Shampoo”, “Housesitter”, “First Wives Club”) – is a high-concept casting coup. Co-producer Paul Feig, who has made a career of female-centred action comedies, including the 2016 “Ghostbusters”, “The Heat”, “Bridesmaids” and “Spy”, ensures there is the requisite mix of bawdy humour and action. Add to the mix a good sprinkling of lesser-known but equally adept comics: African-American entertainer Wanda Sykes, character actress Joan Cusack and Jewish comic Ike Barinholtz as Amy’s brother.

Emily (Amy), Linda (Goldie) and Jeffrey (Ike) constitute the Middleton family (dad is long gone). Emily is a late twentysomething drifting through life, Jeffrey suffers from severe agoraphobia and a host of other anxiety disorders, and Linda has taken anxiety to a high art. Fired from her job and recently broken-up with her boyfriend, Emily invites her mother to accompany her on her planned trip to Ecuador. It’s a last resort: no-one else wants to go with her.

The trip seems so idyllic, including Emily’s meeting the dark handsome stranger who takes them on an adventure to the jungle … and leads them to getting kidnapped by a nasty Latin gang (a throwback of stereotyped screen bad guys not out of place in Trump’s America). They escape, get found again, get help from odd characters (including Sykes and a mute Cusack), race through the jungle and some people die. Somehow it all seems good fun, an odd mixture of personal peril that does not quite seem real. They call on Jeffrey for help, he rises to the occasion, and contact the American State Department, which appears only mildly interested in their fate.

This is a film for the “Bridesmaids” fans, although director Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) never quite pulls it off. It’s one thing to soil a wedding dress, but quite another for two women to be chained in a jungle hideout; the setting seems not quite as funny, even if the characters are.

The Middletons seem like a wholesome middle American family (get the name joke?), but the strong strains of family anxiety feel like a particularly Jewish characteristic presented by three accomplished Jewish comic actors. It’s too bad the film-makers skipped the opportunity of making the characters Jewish, thereby forgoing a truly rich source of humour. It would not have solved the film’s core challenges, but would have given us lots more to laugh about.

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The Forward’s ‘Top 50’ Jews in American Life

November 29, 2015

Here’s further proof that Australia and the USA – despite being linked by the English language and a long and deep friendship – are worlds apart in social, political and artistic cultures. “The Forward” – possibly the oldest and still the best Jewish newspaper in the USA (originally published in Yiddish as “The Jewish Daily Forward”, and read religiously by my grandfather Sol) back in the 1930s – has just published its list of the 50 Jews in the USA making the most impact in 2015.

The article is entitled “Loud, Proud, And at The Heart of America”. Author Jane Eisner points out that, “This is a year when American Jews are deeply, loudly and passionately embedded in some of the most pressing political and social issues in the nation.” Jews seem to be everywhere on the cultural cutting edge, “from the debate over a nuclear deal with Iran, to the emergence of transgender identity in synagogues and on screen, to the groundbreaking acceptance of marriage equality.”

Politics: Presidential wanna-be (Vermont Senator) Bernie Sanders, as well as New York Senator Chuck Schumer (uncle of Amy, more on her later) and Congressman Jerry Nadler (New York City – whose district we lived in during our 2011 residence).

Culture: TV show “Transparent” director Jill Soloway and actor Jeffrey Tambor. And number one on the list: actress and comedienne Amy Schumer (“Trainwreck”, and one of “Time” magazine’s “top 100”).

And so the list goes. Fascinating, yes.

But from the perspective of Jews who live outside of the USA, how many of them are “household names” here in Australia (or anywhere else outside of North America), even in the Jewish community? Remarkably, astonishingly, few. Check out the list yourself. Of the 50 (see the complete list below), I only count 12 that I can name with assurance – AND I think I am tied in to US culture and politics.

The ones I recognise are Amy Schumer, Bernie Sanders, Michael Dell (computers), Sheldon Adelson (casino magnate, Jewish philanthropist and conservative activist), Ben Lerner (post-modern novelist), Jill Soloway, Jeffrey Tambour, Jon Stewart (TV host), Sarah Koenig (NPR’s “Serial” podcast), Jerrold Nadler, Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (California Senator).

Top 5
• Amy Schumer
• Marina Rustow
• Bernie Sanders
• Mendy Reiner
• Evan Wolfson

Activism
• Shoshana Roberts
• Nicholas Lowinger
• Emma Sulkowitcz
• Alan Gross
• Ruth Messinger
• Ruby Sklar (and Rachel)

Business
• Michael Dell
• Paul Singer
• Justin Hartfield

Community
• Eli Broad
• Haim Saban
• Tom Sosnik
• Sheldon Adelson
• Alisa Doctoroff

Culture
• Jill Soloway
• Hari Nef
• Billy Eichner
• Shulem Deen
• Nicole Eisenman
• Ben Lerner
• Jeffrey Tambor
• Zalmen Mlotek
• Carolyn Hessel
• Jon Stewart
• Ike Barinholtz
• Sarah Koenig

Food
• Alon Shaya
• Yehuda Sichel
• Leah Koenig

Media
• Lori Adelman
• Sarah Maslin Nir

Politics
• Jerrold Nadler
• Charles Schumer
• Ann Lewis
• Dianne Feinstein
• Wendy Sherman
• Leon Rodriguez

Religion
• Bethany Mandel
• Deborah Waxman
• Capers Funnye
• Naftuli Moster

Science
• Evelyn Witkin
• Gary Cohen
• Tom Frieden

Sports
• Dustin Fleischer

(Amy Schumer’s image from the article appears below.)

Amy Schumer image The Forward


Film review of Trainwreck

August 6, 2015

This review of “Trainwreck” appeared in The Australian Jewish News on 6 August 2015

Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Amy Schumer
Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Mike Birbiglia, Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and LeBron James

This is Amy Schumer’s year. Her “Inside Amy Schumer” TV show is hot hot hot. In April, she was named one of “Time” magazine’s “100 most influential people”. Schumer wrote and stars in “Trainwreck”, which is directed by Judd Apatow, the American Jewish film-maker who seems to have reinvented film comedy in the 21st century. Where will she go next?

Amy Schumer’s character in “Trainwreck” is called “Amy Townsend”, and is clearly autobiographical. Her on-screen sister – excellently played by Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street”) is called Kim (just like her real sister) and her on-screen father (“Saturday Night Live” veteran Colin Quinn) is called Gordon, like her real dad.

Amy (the character) lives in New York City, working for a popular men’s magazine, edited by Dianna, played by unrecognisable Swinton, who creates a character of breathtaking – and genuinely hilarious – self-obsession and total lack of empathy (Swinton also wrote the “Time” magazine article about Schumer). Amy is unhappy in love, using men for sex and not expecting much from her relationships. Things change when Dianna assigns Amy to write a story about a sweet-natured sports physician, Dr Aaron Conners (comedian Bill Hader). Aaron “gets” Amy, understands her weaknesses and appreciates her strengths. Much of the film then charts Amy’s and Aaron’s attempts to develop their relationship, in the best of the romantic comedy tradition.

Like almost every Judd Apatow film, “Trainwreck” is slightly overlong with a predictable plot and conventional denouement, filled with many wonderful – some truly memorable – scenes, but ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its component parts. A number of scenes and plot devices simply don’t work. I could have skipped the “film within a film” called “The Dogwalker” starring Daniel Radcliffe (“Harry Potter”) and Marisa Tomei, much of the time spent on Amy’s relationship with her father and his illness, and an odd scene with actor Matthew Broderick, tennis star Chris Evert and New York sportscaster Marv Albert (all playing themselves) when they “counsel” Aaron.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that “Trainwreck” contains some of the funniest film lines this year, the romance is fully believable, and most minor characters (some played by previously unknown actors) give unforgettable performances. In addition to Tilda Swinton, professional basketball mega-star LeBron James – playing himself as a colleague and friend of Aaron’s – gives a subtle and delightfully comic performance. Bulked up professional wrestler John Cena also adds a lovely comic turn as one of Amy’s boyfriends (Schumer once dated professional wrestler Dolph Ziggler). Vanessa Bayer plays a ditsy magazine colleague of Amy’s who smiles when nervous (watch the scene between her and Swinton and you’ll understand). A deadpan Ezra Miller plays the funniest young editorial intern to appear on film, and – at age 100 – legendary Jewish actor Norman Lloyd plays a crotchety Jewish resident (named “Norman”) of Gordon’s Long Island nursing home.

“Trainwreck” is Amy’s story, however, her first starring film role. Like Lena Dunham in “Girls” (which Schumer recently appeared in), Schumer reflects the present moment of semi-confident, young, urban women fitfully seeking romance and professional success, in a long film tradition that extends back to “His Girl Friday”, “Working Girl”, “9 to 5”, “Legally Blonde” and “The Devil Wears Prada”. Along the way, Apatow and Schumer find time to pay quick homage to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”, even shooting a brief scene at the Queensboro Bridge and playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.

Schumer is not your typical or classically beautiful romantic star: “Sydney Morning Herald” film critic Jake Wilson describes her as “one of the most original romantic comedy stars since Barbra Streisand. But like other comics of her generation, she is apparently fearless, more than willing to make a fool of herself (think Sarah Silverman). Although Schumer is Jewish (and a cousin of New York Jewish Senator Chuck Schumer), her character in “Trainwreck” is Jewish only in that its self-deprecating comedy is filled with the angst of self-doubt. Schumer is a great physical comic, and “Trainwreck” truly soars the film lets Schumer “strut her stuff”: the last scene, set in New York’s Madison Square Garden, is a total delight.

Unlike the majority of Judd Apatow’s films, which are aimed squarely at male geeks (“40 Year Old Virgin”) and slackers (“Knocked Up”), “Trainwreck” will appeal to women more than men. Minor criticisms aside, this film is a crowd-pleaser, and audiences are likely to leave the cinema feeling happy. What more can you ask for?

“Trainwreck” is Rated MA15+ in Australia, for “strong sex scenes, sexual references and coarse language”. There is lots of use of “f” word and simulated sex – much of it hilariously portrayed.

Trainwreck_poster