March 2011 has been tough for the chosen folk: a YouTube video showed House of Christian Dior fashion designer John Galliano ranting against Jews and “ugly apeople”; WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange blamed a Jewish press conspiracy for his problems, and Charlie Sheen declared that his mom is Jewish and therefore he is, too. It turns out he’s not anti-Semitic, but a self-loathing Jew.
But the news wasn’t all bad. Pope Benedict XI finally and officially exonerated us for the death of Jesus. And in the world of film, we have reached the status of WASPs.
Previously, movies about dysfunctional families — “Ordinary People,” “The Ice Storm” and, more recently, “The Fighter” — have largely been the domain of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants portrayed by big-name performers. No longer.
Enter “Peep World,” a film about the dysfunctional Meyerwitz clan and featuring some of TV’s best-known stars, including Sarah Silverman, Michael C. Hall of “Dexter” and Rainn Wilson of “The Office.” Before rejoicing in this breakthrough too quickly, however, consider that we still lag in one important area: having a high-quality dysfunctional Jewish-family film.
“Peep World” is not so much a movie as it is a movie-length series of “Saturday Night Live” sketches. That isn’t surprising, since director Barry Blaustein is a former writer and producer of the show. But, as with SNL, some sketches are funny, many less so.
The film is set on the day of the 70th birthday party of patriarch Henry Meyerwitz (Ron Rifkin). The unseen narrator (Lewis Black, one of the movie’s few highlights), describes him as “more like a face on a billboard than a father. He was like the Marlboro man, only shorter — and Jewish.”
Even in a down economy, Henry’s real estate and construction business booms. Despite his success, though, he never has a kind word to say about his children.
Consider the youngest, Nathan (Ben Schwartz), author of a novel called “Peep World.” A fictionalized version of the troubled family, the book is a best-seller whose rights have been sold to the movies. Because the book strikes so close to home, Nathan’s three siblings are angry with him, to the point of revenge.
Familial retribution is the least of his problems, though, for poor Nathan suffers from premature ejaculation. So in the midst of a book tour, he schedules an appointment with a doctor he finds on Craigslist. The doc injects him — how to put this delicately? — intraphallically. The problem is that the dose is too large and his erection won’t go away. The now panicked physician tells Nathan, “Your penis will have to be drained before gangrene sets in.”
This is freshman humor, which is, of course, a step below sophomoric and depends on a generation that has already forgotten jokes from when Viagra was first introduced, more than a decade ago.
Older brother Jack (Hall) is an architect so uninspired that a family friend turns down his design for a den. For a den! Business is so bad, he has to let his three employees go. We are left to wonder how he ever built up the business to a level at which he could have three employees — one of many questions that “Peep World” leaves unanswered.
Jack spends his free time reading books about Hitler and denying to his pregnant wife, Laura (Judy Greer), that he regularly attends peep shows in the way Nathan described in his book. Jack is also tired of being the responsible one, throwing (and paying for) Henry’s annual party and subsidizing his black sheep brother Joel’s unpaid debt.
Joel (Wilson) is a failed attorney who can’t pay to get his car towed (though one might wonder how he afforded a Cadillac Escalade). He’s heavily in debt to gangsters, and plans to ask his father for a $12,000 loan to pay them off at the party.
Sister Cheri (Silverman) is an unsuccessful and bitter wannabe actress. It doesn’t help that “Peep World” is being shot in front of her house, or that the actress playing Cheri is Daddy’s latest fling. Cheri’s dating a Jew for Jesus and is as delusional about her acting skills as she is about her relationship with her father. She thinks she’s Daddy’s little girl, but he doesn’t care any more for her than he does for any of his other children.
What saves the film from outright mediocrity are some excellent performances. Lesley Ann Warren is particularly poignant as Henry’s former wife, Marilyn. Though remarried, she still has feelings for her ex. Inexplicably, she attends his party and sits there as he canoodles his new girlfriend, who, he announces, is pregnant. The pain on Warren’s face speaks volumes. Her puppy dog eyes well up, and her anguish is obvious.
Rifkin, too, excels in a relatively small role. He’s easy to hate, as he toasts Nathan’s success but then tells him he still hasn’t bothered reading the novel. Nathan’s crestfallen expression mirrors the pain we’ve just seen on Marilyn. But these moments only accentuate how “Peep World” lacks a center.
Hoping to ingratiate himself, Joel brings a present for his father: a photo of the two of them at his law school graduation. His father’s comment: “You had such potential then.”
What happened to the potential? Why did Joel survive childhood in that environment and get through law school and then flame out as an adult?
Without knowing the answers, viewer sees the film’s characters as caricatures. Caricatures work in newspaper cartoons, not so much in films. The seemingly happy denouement (which won’t be revealed here) fails. All is not well just because it ends well.
Curt Schleier is the editor of filmsoundoff.com and teaches business writing to corporate executives.