It can be difficult to do ethnic comedy well. Witness the current debate about the television show Dads and whether its depiction of one of its Asian characters is offensive as an example of just how envelope-pushing a mainstream comedy is allowed to be. It can also be difficult to turn a successful stage play into a film. While Shakespeare might lend himself to free adaptation, other plays can sometimes seem artificially transported to the wider world. Jewtopia tries to run both gauntlets, trying to turn a previously successful off-Broadway play and subsequent book into a successful film. The result, as one might expect given the difficulty of the terrain, is mixed.
Christian O’Connell (Ivan Sergei) and Adam Lipschitz (Joel David Moore) become good friends in junior high school when Adam is the only student not to mock Christian, a military brat, about wearing a uniform to school. The two get along well despite very different home lives, which both seem to be the other’s first interactions with people from outside their faith tradition. After being forced to move again, Christian loses contact. Years later, both are now living in Los Angeles, and Christian pines for his lost Jewish college girlfriend, nine years after he’s dumped on graduation day, while Adam is stuck in a difficult relationship with his Princess-y fiancée Hannah (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). When Christian’s attempts to begin a relationship with a woman he meets outside a Jewish singles mixer (Jennifer Love Hewitt), he contacts his old friend to see if he might help coach him on ways of acting more Jewish in order to pass in front of his new love and her family.
Moore has long been a supporting player in many films, working as a partly comic relief character in Avatar and taking a turn in Dodgeball. Here, he helps to provide a solid anchor to the story, while also managing a few funny physical bits. A number of supporting turns are also effective, especially the welcome performance of Jon Lovitz – who doesn’t appear often enough in film and television – as Adam’s father and Rita Wilson as his mother. Both manage to find comedic value in their characters. Bryan Fogel, who co-wrote the adaptation of the play, along with original co-writer Sam Wilson, shows a good eye as director.
The issue, however, comes in translating the broad humor that might work well onstage to the big screen. Many of the stereotypes of both Jews and Gentiles alike would probably work better on intimate stages requiring a more broad type of humor. Any subtlety that came in on stage is lost in the transition. Many of the characters, in particular the female ones, are less human beings and more like living archetypes or stock characters that don’t really get to have an inner life of their own. There are also some strange casting choices. The O’Connell family, a bastion of stereotyped All-American hyper-masculinity has at its head Peter Stormare, a Swede with an accent he has difficulty controlling. Without knowledge of the original theatrical run of the play, it’s difficult to say for certain who the core audience was, but if it was mostly Jewish, it’s hard to see much crossover appeal to goy audiences. Other films, such as The Hebrew Hammer, actually seem more successful by going far more over-the-top. Perhaps that might have been a course that could have been followed more successfully.
For fans of the original source material though, the movie version will likely be a welcome sight. The performances from the main and supporting casts are good, and while the story may seem too broad for some, it may provide a nice diversion for those in the mood for this kind of humor.