The brilliance of “The Hebrew Hammer,” an edgy, often shocking jewploitation action film, is not just that it will do anything to get laughs, but that it often doesn’t seem to know how far it is actually going.
Any film that begins with the dedication “To all my Jewish brothers and sisters who have had enough of gentiles” is obviously pushing culture-clash buttons, but Jonathan Kesselman’s film, which opens at the Angelika Film Center in New York on December 19, doesn’t stop there. After a short flashback in which the protagonist has his dreidel crushed by a vicious Santa, we meet our main character as an adult: Mordechai Jefferson Carver, aka “The Hebrew Hammer” (played by Adam Goldberg), a Shaft-like private eye who spends his time helping Jews in trouble. As Goldberg, dressed in an outfit that is a cross between chasid-chic and urban-drug-lord-pimp duds, walks through the Lower East Side, the theme song, a perfect Isaac Hayes parody, swells behind him:
Written and directed by Kesselman, “The Hebrew Hammer,” while neatly and sharply constructed, is an all out hodgepodge of parody. It targets blaxploitation films, mainstream American Jewish politics, Sam Spade movies, Jewish family relations, spaghetti westerns, black nationalism, spy thrillers, sentimental use of the Holocaust, sexual hypocrisy, secular Christian culture and multiculturalism. And Kesselman has managed to piece together a ramshackle plot that works perfectly.
The good Santa Claus (Richard Riehle) has been murdered by his evil son, Damian (played by Andy Dick), who now intends to wipe out Chanukah and make Christmas the only end-of-the-year holiday. With the help of his boyfriend, Tiny Tim (Sean Whalen), Damian begins flooding Jewish neighborhoods with bootlegged copies of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in an attempt to brainwash Jewish children into celebrating Christmas. Meanwhile, members of the Jewish Justice League (J.J.L.), realizing that they cannot counter this by releasing more “award-winning Holocaust movies” and new Adam Sandler films, decide to call in the Hebrew Hammer, who had been expelled from the group for being “even too radical even for the J.J.L.” The organization’s chief (Peter Coyote, in a Moshe Dayan-esqe eye-patch complete with a Magen David) sends his sexy daughter Esther (Judy Greer) to persuade Hammer to return; after some pressure from his mother (Nora Dunn), he does.
Banding together with his friend, and head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Raheam (played by Mario Van Peebles), Hammer goes after Santa Damian. Eventually — after grappling with racist white skinheads, evil black elves and crazed Christmas shoppers in a K-Mart (“Jews in Aisle Five”) — the two save both Chanukah and Kwanzaa from the “psycho antisemitic Santa.” Along the way the Hammer and Esther discover that they love one another and, in the end, Hammer gets a regular, secure job with the J.J.L.— which makes his mother happy.
What is startling about “The Hebrew Hammer” is not just how good — and how continuously funny — it is, but how long it took to have a film like this made. Kesselman has not only produced a great comedy, but has elicited truly great comic performances from his actors. Goldberg’s Hammer and Greer’s Esther are perfect full-bodied parodies balanced between knowing satire and discomfiting stereotype, and Dunn’s monstrous Mrs. Carver is a masterpiece of on-the-edge cliché.
Some of the jokes here are off-the-cuff funny but essentially dumb (Manischewitz Black Label, endless Seder chicken courses), but others — including the Jewish Justice League and Black Power parodies — offer near-perfect zaniness. Still, the most endearing aspect of this film is its sheer willingness to flaunt itself and its cultural capital, and it’s not that it simply brandishes its bad-boy attitude. It is its constant defiance of easy categorization. More importantly, it refuses to allow us to feel entirely comfortable with it. For every easy joke, there is a use of an extreme black or Jewish stereotype intended to catch viewers off guard. Unlike Woody Allen’s films — which, as wonderful as many may be, are engineered to make non-Jewish audiences comfortable with various forms of cultural Judaism — “The Hebrew Hammer” goes out of its way to create discomfort, in both Jews and non-Jews alike.
From Fanny Brice and the Marx Brothers and Sam Levine to Adam Sandler and Fran Drescher, American Jewish humor has often attempted to universalize its tone and subjects. But there is another strand of Jewish humor — early Eddie Cantor skits, much of Lenny Bruce, the edgiest aspects of Sandra Bernhard — that actively intend to create and magnify cultural difference and unease. This edgy humor and satire of (early) Cantor, Bruce and Bernhard is generated from inside the culture and is fraught with anger.
But it was Kesselman’s twinning of this influence with another genuine expression of identity that created the movie’s symbiotic feel. “Shaft” and other mainstream and independent blaxploitation films of the 1970s — as well as their satiric progeny, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (1988) and “Fear of the Black Hat” (1994) — represented one of the first nonnegotiable, identity-proud, angry expressions of racial politics in American culture. And the preoccupation with Jewish masculinity, at the heart of so much contemporary Jewish writing, finds its perfect complement in the blaxploitation genre. Hammer’s daring and brash, butch masculinity exist alongside his totally neurotic tendencies. He is the new “muscle Jew” with a soft center. His call for Jewish pride comes directly from Shaft. “Hey you bad, bold, big-nosed biblical brother,” Hammer tells a little yeshiva boy who has been taunted by older gentile kids. “Stay Jewish.”