NEW YORK — “I loooooove your hair. Do you use product?”
“Nah, that’s, uhhh… I use Jew.”
So goes the first bit of flirtation between Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up.” It was Rogen’s first film with him as star, and while we may not have realized it at the time, it did reflect a different kind of Jewish representation in motion pictures.
Rogen, with that punim, is clearly not one who will pass for a goy as did Jewish actors in Hollywood’s Golden Era. But he’s also not angling to be the edgy streetwise Jew of “New Hollywood” like Dustin Hoffman, Elliot Gould or James Caan. He’s letting it all hang out — or, in this case, frizz out — being himself, and if that self happens to be charming and lovable, he’s not going to be neurotic about it. That’s behavior of a different time. He’ll just own it. “I use Jew.”
His forthcoming time-traveling comedy “An American Pickle,” based on Simon Rich’s short story that mixes Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” with Peter Reigert’s character from “Crossing Delancey” (and on which friend-of-Times of Israel Motl Didnier consulted as a Yiddish expert), is going to launch on the new HBO Max streaming service in late May. So now’s the time to open up to Seth Rogen.
Rogen was born in 1982 in Vancouver, British Columbia. His father worked in non-profits, including the Workmen’s (now Workers) Circle. His mother was a social worker and is currently a total scream on Twitter. He attended Jewish day schools and was soon selling jokes to eager customers, such as a local mohel (ritual circumciser). When he was 13 he and his chum (and creative partner to this day) Evan Goldberg wrote the initial draft of the film “Superbad,” which later grossed $170 million.
He got his start in the short-lived but influential series “Freaks and Geeks,” which was luckily shooting in Canada. He was 16 when he auditioned, and at first he was one of the weirdos in the background, but by the end he was one of the highlights of the show. He then fell in with “Freaks and Geeks” producer Judd Apatow’s band of a-little-bit-naughty-but-mostly-nice company of stoner comedians. Many were Jews (Paul Rudd, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill) and even the ones who weren’t you’d swear they were (Jay Baruchel, Michael Cera, hell, even Craig Robinson).
In time he was big enough to be his own industry. He goofed up trying to play it too straight as an action star in Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” (even with the jokes), but bounced back, has co-directed some films and has refined his nice-guy-but-honest persona to perfection. Here are the three essentials.
‘Knocked Up’ (2007)
This really is as good as you remember. Rogen is the slacker doofus thrust into adulthood thanks to getting lucky one night then ending up with an unexpected pregnancy. Will he put down the bong and pick up the rattle? What’s great about this movie is that, let’s be honest, every guy, every person, regardless of their station in life, feels inadequate in the face of major life changes.
I may sound like I’m kidding, but I find the moment when Rogen’s character looks aghast as his roommates mirthfully fart on pillows with the intent of infecting each other with pinkeye to be deeply meaningful. Harold Ramis as the laid back, ultra-menschy “this is a blessing!” father is one of the warmest visions of Jewish fatherhood put to film.
To many of us Rogen is still a boychik, but to him, I guess, he feels like an old man already. Even did six years ago.
In “Neighbors” he’s a regular guy and new father putzing around his house, making witticisms to his wife played by Rose Byrne. Suddenly a college fraternity moves into the house next door, led by the very handsome young Jew, Zac Efron. (Did I mention handsome? He’s handsome.)
Anyway, a lot of stupid crap happens, but it’s all a clothesline for some extremely funny sequences. I remember my wife and I laughing a lot when we saw this in the theaters, then going out to dinner and feeling good about life for 15 minutes. It made a bazillion dollars and there was even a sequel. It’s probably the quintessential Rogen movie, although I also really liked “The Interview” where he and James Franco have to assassinate Kim Jong Un.
‘Sausage Party’ (2016)
Those who have never seen “Sausage Party” look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that this movie is a rich and philosophical work. I wrote positively about it when it was released but if you don’t want to listen to me, listen to A.O. Scott at the New York Times. I mean, that guy’s got initials in his name, so you know he’s a genius.
“Sausage Party,” is a little crude and vulgar at times, but so is life. It is set in a supermarket, in which grocery goods are anthropomorphized and kept docile with a rewards-based theological system. They are thrown out of Paradise, however, when they attain true knowledge of their existence, e.g. they are being prepped for consumption.
The film even solves the Israel-Palestine conflict through dirty jokes
A 9/11-esque attack happens, though the billowing dust isn’t a destroyed office tower, but baking powder. The frankfurters, buns, bagels and crackers succumb to their baser instincts, but eventually land on an ethos not just of live-and-let-live but also to let others believe what they want to believe. The film even solves the Israel-Palestine conflict through dirty jokes.
Anyway, it’s a masterpiece and you should definitely watch it, just not with little kids around. (Oh, I should have mentioned it is a cartoon that looks like Pixar at first blush, but it most certainly is not.)
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