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Jungle Fever, Minus the Heat

One of the great ironies of cultural criticism is that bad movies can illuminate important ideas or historical trends. Indeed, bad movies may even be better at doing this than good movies because good movies are more likely to seduce us into their world, leaving us less imaginative room outside of themselves in which to roam.

This is particularly true of Richard Benjamin’s “Marci X” — a film that for all of its nascent wit, inventiveness and political audacity is unreservedly a failure. Yet watching “Marci X” in a near-empty theater the day it opened I was, by and large, entranced and excited. Here is a movie that — in spite of all its terrible missteps, flaws and excesses — struck me as a smart, edgy attempt to push forward an ongoing, often difficult, public conversation: the cultural and political interconnections between American Jews and African Americans.

On paper, “Marci X” must have looked terrific. Scripted by Paul Rudnick, who brought the world “Jeffrey” and “Addams Family Values,” with his sharp eye for the absurdities of popular culture and the ironies of capitalism, it is an updated Romeo and Juliet story with lovers separated not by family feud, but by class, color, sensibility, religion and style. Marci Feld (Lisa Kudrow) is the super-rich, single Jewish woman-socialite-philanthropist whose financier father, Ben Feld (Richard Benjamin), is already in the middle of a Christian-right-generated culture war when it is discovered he owns the record company that produces the sexually provocative rapping of Dr. S (Damon Wayans), noted for his hit “The Power in My Pants.” Marci decides to solve the problem by reforming Dr. S, but soon Jungle Fever takes hold and Marci and Dr. S are involved in the war between the sexes along with their Kulturkampf. Of course, in the end, lust, common sense and a shared love of money — Marci gets to rap “The Power in My Purse” — win out.

There are a few parts of “Marci X” that are great — Paula Garcés’s mean turn as a take-off on J-Lo, an ’N Sync parody (called “Boys R Us” here) that has them singing a gay love song, the demure, obscene banter among Marci’s spoiled, rich girlfriends as they discuss their sex activities with Dr. S’s posse — but for the most part the film’s potentially devastating satire feels as though it started out as clever party chatter that never grew up to be a real script. So what’s here to like?

Two years ago I taught a class at Dartmouth College entitled “Jews and Hollywood: The Making of American Dreams” and what surprised me most was the enormous interest and response the students had to the history of cultural associations and affinities between Jewish and African-American cultures: from Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor using blackface in their movies and the complicated interweaving of Jewish and African-American themes in popular music to films such as Anthony Drazan’s greatly underrated 1992 “Zebrahead” (about a romance between a Jewish boy and a black girl in a Detroit high school) and Spike Lee’s compelling but deeply problematic “Mo’ Better Blues.” We even looked at Sandra Bernhardt’s postmodern and often disquieting takes on black popular culture and Anna Deavere Smith’s cross-race, cross-gender performance in “Fires in the Mirror,” which detailed personal responses to the riots in Crown Heights and the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum. The students were fascinated by all of it. But as rich as this history was — and is — the trouble was that there was not a great deal of contemporary material.

Watching “Marci X” made me realize that what I miss most in films these days is a sense of daring and a willingness to push buttons and make me think about issues of identity, race, religion, class, sex… whatever. Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” did this a few years ago; Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans” did it this year, as did (in a smaller way) Eytan Fox’s lovely “Yossi & Jagger,” now playing the Jewish film festival circuit.

I think my students would have liked the culture-clash of “Marci X,” but I suspect they would have had the same problem with it that I do: It doesn’t go far enough. At its best, “Marci X” has the instinct that defines the sloppy, anarchistic, socially disruptive nerve of a Marx Brothers movie or the wonderful self-mocking satire of the American Yiddish theater. If it pulled out all the stops it would detonate and explode our cultural stereotypes and expectations. But it doesn’t trust its satiric impulse enough and pulls back. Wayans’s Dr. S is too nice, and Kudrow’s Marci, is, well, just not Jewish enough. (You long to see what a young Fran Drescher could have done with the role.) After setting out to shock its audience, “Marci X” makes up its mind to be just naughty.

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