Love him or hate him, Adam Sandler is one of the few mainstream Jewish stars willing to deal honestly with the complexities of contemporary Jewish identity. Although often over the top, his films typically contain resonant moments which linger in the mind long after the potty jokes are a distant memory. In Click, I was moved by his subtle dissection of living on “autopilot.” In You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, I laughed hard as he tweaked Israeli stereotypes.
My favorite Sandler movie to date is Spanglish. When Spanglish opened in 2006, most reviews were downright hostile, and many critics threw verbal darts at Tea Leoni’s performance as “Deborah Clasky” (the high-strung uber-shiksa wife of Adam Sandler’s Jewish mensch “John”). But it was obvious to me that despite her questionable methods, Deborah only wants the best for her daughter “Bernice” (beautifully played by teenage Sarah Steele).
To me, the whole point of Spanglish is to show that, at least in this particular case, the problem lies in the culture and not in the mother. John Clasky is a warm father who is always quick to console Bernice after Deborah’s latest gaff, but that doesn’t let him off the hook. Writer/director James L. Brooks clearly wants audience members to contrast John’s words with his actions: why did John chose Deborah for his bride in the first place?
Answers to this question abound, but let’s start with Woody Allen. Please correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I believe the last Jewish actress to play a Jewish character in a Woody Allen film was Julie Kavner who appeared as the mother in Radio Days way back in 1987. Although Scarlett Johansson—who starred in the recent Allen films Match Point, Scoop, and Vicky Christina Barcelona—actually is Jewish, she’s never identified as Jewish in any of Allen’s films. (Much like in Sarah Jessica Parker’s case, filmmakers—including Allen—seem determined to ensure that Johansson is never cast as a Jewish character. Indeed, her intention to star in a remake of Marjorie Morningstar fizzled as soon as news of it hit the MSM.)
Allen made his definitive turn away from Jewish women in Annie Hall by explicitly contrasting Diane Keaton’s “Annie” (the physical embodiment of a stereotypical shiksa with very straight hair and very long legs) with rejected Jewish wives played by Jewish actresses Carol Kane and Janet Margolin. And since winning the Oscar for Annie Hall in 1978, Allen seems to have defined professional success as the ability to continue bedding shiksas on screen either personally or by proxy (just as the pseudo-Woody played by Owen Wilson beds Rachel McAdams in this year’s Midnight in Paris).
But to his credit, Sandler confronts this extremely difficult and sensitive subject—media images of Jewish women—head on in Jack and Jill. “Jack Sadelstein” (Sandler’s latest protagonist) is living the California dream: successful career; perfect family; huge house. But Jack’s twin sister “Jill Sadelstein” (also played by Sandler) is still stuck in the Bronx: no career; no family; no house. Why such different fates? Since they are, in fact, mirror images of one another, why such an easy path for Jack and such a bumpy road for Jill?
The story begins right before Thanksgiving, as everyone in LA prepares for yet another holiday visit from Jill. Hearing the news, one of Jack’s colleagues begins making fun of Jill. Jack’s immediate response: “I can say that; you can’t.”
Then Jill arrives, and she is, indeed, the epitome of every negative stereotype you can possible imagine—a loud, crude, heavy-set narcissist who never stops kvetching. And just to make sure the audience gets it, Sandler has Jill say to Jack’s wife “Erin” (Katie Holmes aka Mrs. Tom Cruise): “What did Jack do to make you convert?” Jill asks this question at the dinner table in front of Erin’s very proper parents “Bitsy and Carter Simmons” (Valerie Mahaffey and Geoff Pierson). Erin, Bitsy & Carter: have you ever met any Jews with names like these? Oy!
Just like John Clasky in Spanglish, Jack Sadelstein has married the perfect shiksa, but just like John Clasky, Jack Sadelstein is now the father of a daughter. What does fate hold in store for her, this daughter he so clearly loves? This is a very serious question, and I believe it is a question Sandler has carried with him since Spanglish. He knows the truth: the more these daughters (beginning with Bernice) physically resemble him, the more they risk becoming Jills rather than Jacks.
But, alas, once he creates “Jill,” Sandler doesn’t quite know what to do with her, and too much of the film is barely watchable (although Al Pacino does have a few very funny scenes mocking his own Al Pacino persona). So no, I don’t recommend paying for multiplex tickets to Jack and Jill, but I do admire Sandler’s chutzpah and hope he keeps trying. In all of his movies—including Jack and Jill—Adam Sandler wears his Jewish identity gracefully. He neither hams it up nor dumbs it down, and for this he has both my admiration and my gratitude.
PS for those of you who have already seen Spanglish: I’m happy to report that Sarah Steele (who played Sandler’s awkward daughter “Bernice”) is maturing into a beautiful and accomplished actress, with an endearing role last year in Please Give and ongoing appearances as Eli Gold’s Jewish daughter “Marissa” in The Good Wife.