"He's a complicated Jew, and no one understands him but his mother." If you can soulfully sing those words over the famous wah-wah riff of Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft", you are well on your way to enjoying the militantly silly spoof The Hebrew Hammer.
Adam Goldberg stars as Mordechai Jefferson Carver, affectionately known on the streets of his Brooklyn neighbourhood as The Hebrew Hammer. As resourceful as he is neurotic, he manages to combine a knockabout career in crime-fighting with the usual Woody Allen-style problems over family, love and sex.
Santa Claus (Richard Riehle), on the brink of introducing his revolutionary program of cultural and religious reconciliation one fine Christmas, is brutally replaced by his evil heir, Damian (Andy Dick).
In a strategy obviously inspired by a university semester of cultural studies, Damian decides to unleash on the Jewish community the most pernicious of all weapons in the arsenal of Christian ideology: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Only a steady diet of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Yentl (1983) and The Chosen (1981) can combat such mind-control.
Written and directed by Jonathan Kesselman (who previously made a successful short about the Hammer), this is a ramshackle, cornball comedy, reminiscent in its rough charm of early Woody Allen (Take the Money and Run, 1969) or more outré, low-budget delights hidden in video stores such as The Outdoorsters (1985).
Its pace ensures that, if one gag falls flat, five others are quickly coming to replace it. And the biggest novelty of the project – its combination of Jewish and African-American comedy – works extremely well.
The most inspired aspect of The Hebrew Hammer is that it not only includes every standard topic of Jewish humour (food, guilt, etc), but also incorporates every awful, stupid thing said about the Jews in the wider world.
Hence the delightful spectacle of Chief (Peter Coyote) calling upon his colleague (George Hosmer) – the official Chairman of the Worldwide Jewish Media Conspiracy – to sway public opinion with "a few more Holocaust documentaries or another Schindler's List".
© Adrian Martin March 2004