Boxing Dumb

A Dysfunctional Jewish Family Takes Center Stage in ‘Peep World’

Twisted Sister: Wannabe actress Cheri Meyerwitz (Sarah Silverman) puts them up in ‘Peep World.’
Alexandra Weiss
Twisted Sister: Wannabe actress Cheri Meyerwitz (Sarah Silverman) puts them up in ‘Peep World.’

By Curt Schleier

Published March 16, 2011, issue of March 25, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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 and teaches business writing to corporate executives.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.