Laughing in the face of tragedy is a time-honored theme in film. Yet joking about one of the ultimate tragedies of contemporary history, the Holocaust, is still a rare, potentially radioactive device (and, some would say, for good reason). Jerry Seinfeld made out with his girlfriend in a theater during “Schindler’s List,” and his friend Larry David pitted a Holocaust survivor against a contestant from the reality show “Survivor,” but even these A-list Jewish comedians have to be careful walking the fine line between humor and offense.
Into this minefield walks comedian Bob Odenkirk, whose film “The Pity Card” premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival. The film revolves around an unusual first date between a 20-something Jew, played by Simon Helberg, and a historically challenged shiksa goddess (Ange Billman). When the two visit the Holocaust Museum, she emerges devastated because she had never heard of the Holocaust. Her outrage that such a thing could happen makes her want to tell the world. Her bleats of sympathy for her companion do not help matters; he is already mortified at her ignorance.
And, perhaps because it seems to skewer righteous stupidity rather than minimizing an atrocity, “The Pity Card” played to a guffawing audience.
“We’ve all run into people who say, ‘Really, did the North win?’” Odenkirk said after the screening. “There’s so much information out there that even big things get lost.”
Odenkirk — a 43-year-old “Saturday Night Live” veteran and, more significantly, co-creator of the HBO sketch comedy series “Mr. Show” — originally wrote and directed “The Pity Card” with the intent of making it part of an HBO series. Then the cable network ditched the plan, and Odenkirk applied for the festival. As a non-Jew Odenkirk consulted many of the faith, including his wife, Naomi, and Helberg, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors. Helberg said he instigated the premise, although he doesn’t expect his grandparents to get it.
“I don’t think I can spring it on them,” Helberg said. “They know what they need to know: that I made a show and it was funny.”
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Another film with Jewish elements and a non-Jewish filmmaker bucked political correctness with brio. “Lucky Number Slevin,” opening March 31, offered the pleasure of Sir Ben Kingsley devouring scenery as a Jewish gangster-rabbi. One moment he is consulting with a hit man, the next he is reading the Torah.
The rabbi’s henchmen are ex-Mossad agents assigned to protect his gay son, and his rival is The Boss (Morgan Freeman), the leader of an African American gang. It’s a caper movie with a blood-soaked shell and a kooky, creamy center.
“The guy who wrote the script, Jason Smilovic, is a nice Jewish boy from New York,” Scottish director Paul McGuigan said. “It’s great when you have an irreverent idea of a race or religion. Like there’s nobody safe from us: gays, blacks, Jews, even the Scottish at some point. It’s nice to work on that premise.”
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Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” strayed from conventional biography by weaving interviews with singers performing covers of the legendary Canadian novelist and singer-songwriter. Best of all was Rufus Wainwright’s version of “Everybody Knows.”
U2’s David Howell Evans, aka The Edge, calls Cohen’s work biblical in impact. Cohen, 71, looks briefly into a mirror shaped like a Jewish star, but we do not see his reflection. The film does not deal with Cohen’s faith head on. One gets the sense while watching that he is a spiritual explorer.
“I’m not a nostalgic person,” Cohen tells the camera. “So I have no occasion for regrets or self-congratulations.” But the man can talk just as poetically about himself as he does of tormented love in his songs and poetry. Take a look for yourself when Lions Gate releases the movie in mid-June.
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Remainders: There was ample room for the topical at Sundance, as well. Yoav Shamir filmed the initial evacuation of Gaza last August and quickly turned it into a 90-minute documentary called “5 Days.” Seven camera crews followed an Israeli general and the residents who did not go quietly. “Jewboy,” Tony Krawitz’s holdover feature from Cannes, barnstormed Park City, Utah, fueled by a theme of rebellion: A religious student in Jerusalem comes back home to Australia to bury his rabbi father; he is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps but, as you might expect, he has other ideas. And finally, Rex Bloomstein’s “KZ” pointed its camera at a quaint Austrian town with a Nazi legacy that haunts inhabitants and tourists alike.
While illumination and laughs did not always go hand in hand at Sundance, they made an intriguing pair.
Ron Dicker is a New York-based freelance writer who covers film around the world for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hartford Courant and others.