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Thursday, April 8, 2004

Mensch in black

Movie: The Hebrew Hammer

Posted on Thu, Apr 8, 2004 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

You could spend all day kvetching that "The Hebrew Hammer" is inappropriate programming for the glitzy new D.MAC. The movie has already been seen on Comedy Central, which doesn't exactly impart a sense of urgency. And how come a venue that's supposed to be at the so-called cutting edge of cinema is running a Semitic spoof of exploitation action flicks?

The answer: to rock your tuchis, boychick. Everybody needs a little burlesque fun with his digital reprogramming, and the politically incorrect good times barely let up in this story of one Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg), a "certified, circumcised dick" determined to bring his own brand of Jewish justice to the 'chood. (Sound it out.) Mordechai -- known simply as "Hammer" to worshipful Yeshiva students everywhere -- saunters on screen to a patently plagiarized theme song that announces him as "the kike that won't cop out when there's gentiles all about." He'd better be steadfast: The entire Jewish world is depending on him to save Hanukkah from the whims of a racist Santa (Andy Dick) who's hatched an evil plan to rid Christmas of its competition once and for all.

Writer/director Jonathan Kesselman gets the whole concept of exploitation, substituting a neo-Nazi North Pole dictator for the genocidal "whitey" who bedeviled good-hearted pimps and players in the flicks of yore. (Black-cinema icon Melvin Van Peebles has a cameo as his seminal Sweetback character, while son Mario gets to play the leader of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front, a group that's tight with the Hammer for reasons of political practicality.) Yet this isn't the real Santa at work, but his twisted son Damien, who's hijacked the workshop for underhanded reasons of his own. By establishing that Hammer's world includes, um, good goys and bad goys, Kesselman sidesteps charges of reverse demonization, freeing his picture up to taunt innumerable sacred cows ... whether of Judaism, Christianity or just cultural discord in general.

The focus crystallizes in star Goldberg, whose Hammer dwells in a street-tough outer shell that barely conceals an innate exasperation at his own nebbish-ness ... and at the emasculating kibitzing of his shrewish mother. In the latter role, ex-"SNL" dunderhead Nora Dunn is responsible for the film's few genuinely shrill moments; the distaff side is better supported by Judy Greer, the wonderful actress who played the waitress in "Adaptation" and is here cast as Esther Bloomenbergansteinthal, our hero's well-connected love interest. (The script presupposes that the feared international Jewish conspiracy really does exist and lets the intrigue flow from there.) Meanwhile, Tony Cox, most recently seen as Billy Bob Thornton's sidekick in "Bad Santa," gets to play ... another foul-mouthed elf. I think I sense a cottage industry forming.

The movie recycles a few of its better punch lines -- and some lesser ones, too -- which is probably an inevitable byproduct of flogging a simple gag for 85 minutes. Yet "The Hebrew Hammer" rarely descends into the tedium of the average "high-concept" comedy, due mostly to Kesselman's abiding talent for getting a rise out of his audience. You won't have to hunt too hard to find the mitzvah in his mishegoss.

(Opens Friday, April 9, at D.MAC, the Downtown Media Arts Center)

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