Seth Rogen’s Body – A Few Thoughts on Seth Rogen’s Latest Appearance in “Neighbors”

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In one of the most urgent moments of Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up (2007), we see a desperate Ben Stone, played by Seth Rogen, go to his father, played by Harold Ramis, for advice about whether to become a father and have children. Ramis tells Rogen to go for it and that he wants to have grandchildren. At this point, Stone is inspired to be a responsible father. He decides, at this very point, to go from being a schlemiel (man-child) to becoming an adult.   What interests me most about this moment is the fact that Seth Rogen is put face-to-face with Ramis and is given the ok to “bear children.” I cannot but read this as a symbolic moment when the maker of such films as Ghostbusters (1984), Meatballs (1979), Cadyshack (1980), and Animal House (1978), gives the power over to his son. It’s as if we are witnessing Moses giving everything over to Joshua, who will cross the Jordan. Moses will die, while Joshua will carry the tradition on.

We see that Rogen took this to heart in his latest role in the film Neighbors (2014).   But, to be sure, this role is something that was set up by a middle-man; namely, Judd Apatow.

With films like, Super Bad, Knocked up and This is Forty, Judd Apatow has made a decision to address, by way of comedy, the process of moving from being a man-child to an adult with children. In Superbad, a movie written by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen but produced by Apatow, we see the life of two teens in their first sexual experience. There are still schlemiels, but, at the very least, they are successful.

But between Knocked Up and This is Forty (2012), there is a distinct difference: in Knocked Up (2007) Apatow casts Rogen as a schlemiel has decided to have a baby, while in This is Forty Apatow wanted to show us a couple in its forties which, for all intents and purposes, is also dealing with schlemiel-like issues.   In Neighbors(2014) we see that there is a gap between the films which Rogen addresses; that gap has to do with age and experience.

In Neighbors we have a young couple who take us to the next level after Knocked Up but to a level ten or so years before This is Forty.   The running narrative of all this, it seems, is to map out for the viewing public the life of a schlemiel from high school to having a baby, living with the baby (or babies), and attempting (as Marc Maron would say) “normal.”

This is an old/new theme. We see it in many Ramis films, too. But, in this film, we see Ramis and an Apatow type of film conjoined Animal House and This is Forty (and Knocked Up) . The question underlying the plot is: How would the two worlds interact? How will a schlemiel couple, who just had a baby, relate to the younger, single fraternity brothers?

The result of this test was, to my mind, nothing short of being (to pun on the movie by Apatow and Rogen) “super bad.”   But it was bad on too many levels. I didn’t laugh that much and neither did the theater; and when they did there were more like little chuckles. To be sure, something was missing in this film and, on the other hand, something was overdone. The plot, which involved the meeting of two worlds, seemed much too caricatured and the theme and its articulation seemed to miss the mark.

In search of this lack or excess, I found a nasty little review in Salon.com that made no form of apology in its putting the film down. It noted that the film made no mention of the economic crisis and hard times we are going through. What we saw, instead, was affluence that looked to cover up the truth. (In other words, a post-Marxist reading: Neighbors as False Consciousness.)

The final judgment of the reviewer says it all:

Under current economic conditions that are never visible in this movie, Mac and Kelly’s path of happy-family upward mobility is almost as much an illusion as Teddy’s life of all-night, drug-addled ragers. We can long for either, or dare to imagine a mystical, momentary fusion of the two. When the movie’s over, most of us are left with neither one.

While I find this reading to be interesting, I also find it to be a stretch. The “momentary fusion” of the two worlds is not what interests us. Rather, what struck me, while watching the film, was the most interesting thing for the audience; namely, the contrast between Zack Efron’s body and Seth Rogen’s body. To be sure, one of the greatest appeals of Seth Rogen’s character is his slightly overweight body (naked or not naked). We see this in his recent youtube parodies (done with James Franco) where Franco rides Rogen like Kanye West rides Kim Kardashian.

In many scenes Rogen’s body is juxtaposed with Efron’s body, his wife’s body, and the fraternity members’ bodies. What does this all mean? Toward the end of the film, Rogen’s character meets up with Efron’s character at an Abercrombe & Finch store. Efron has his shirt off; Rogen takes his off to and says “he’s always wanted to do this.” He jumps around while Efron laughs and is endeared. At this moment, Efron seems to forgive him and he validates this when he says that Rogen’s body makes “everyone feel comfortable.” Because of his body, people will feel comfortable shopping at Abercrombe and Finch.

To be sure, from the beginning of the film until the end of the film, we now know what makes it sell: Seth Rogen’s body, the schlemiel’s body, is the body that guides us. Not Zack Efron’s body and not the bodies at the Fraternity or elsewhere. I make this reading in all seriousness because, to be sure, Rogen doesn’t act in this film so much as throw his body around into different yet (often) charming configurations.

This should be taken together with the fact that Mac-slash-Rogen’s wife, Kelly, played by Rose Byrne, can hang out with him and eat pizza, stoned, in bed after beating the fraternity. In the end, the battle is a bodily one. Rogen, like Jack Black or John Candy, has an interesting bodily presence; however, in contrast to these actors, he doesn’t have to work as hard in making comic gestures. He just has to be himself.

The plot is that the schlemiel-couple-with-one-baby win over the fraternity. In Animal House it was John Belushi with the weight; now it’s Rogen. And Rogen, as Mac Radner, has a wife and child. He’s responsible. Things have changed.

There is no question that Rogen has taken on the baton from Ramis and that Apatow has set this up for him. The question is whether this re-casting of Ramis’s work, within a context that Apatow has created, is meaningful. Who are our heroes and role models today? Is Rogen’s naked body, bouncing up and down in front of Abercrombe and Finch a sign of what is to come? For such a popular film, can we say that this is “our” comical form of hope? Are Ramis’s grandchildren…ours or somebody else’s? After all, some babies don’t survive. But with a face and body like Seth Rogen’s – reminding us that we can all just relax, get high, and eat whatever we want, whenever we want, while raising children (!) – how can we say no? After all, it seems as if this film is telling us that, ultimately, Rogen’s bodily antics make the differences between our bodies and masculinities less apparent and meaningful. His bodily presence makes us feel at home with the family, etc.

And yet isn’t it the comedians who make us feel least at home that are the most meaningful? But…Neighbors seems to be telling us that, in the end, what we want is to have a new norm, a bodily, comic norm that, to be sure, is more in accord with who we are; namely, comfortable with hanging out with the bros, getting high, eating, and having a good time at a party.

(For something else, something different from this, check out the work of up-and-coming comedians like David Heti.  His work ends on an entirely different note.)

The Transformation of Seth Rogen: From a Schlemiel into a Green Hornet

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Seth Rogen is often cast as a schlemiel in many Hollywood films.  We can see this in films like Knocked Up (2007), Superbad (2007), and Pineapple Express (2008).

But in films like Knocked Up we start seeing the transformation of Rogen’s character.  In that film, Rogen goes from a pot-smoking “lord of dreams” to a responsible father and “partner.”  By the end of the film, we can see a distinct difference between him and his schlemiel friends.  To be sure, Apatow, in this film (and in many others), defines the schlemiel in terms of someone who can’t be a “man” and as a “slacker” or “geek.”  This, unfortunately, reduces the radical potential of this character and makes him into the American “everyman.”

Moreover, it effaces any Jewishness this character may have had for nearly a century.   This act of effacement, according to Daniel Itzkovitz in an essay entitled “They are All Jews,” has been going on for a while.  It evinces a “not-so-subtle shift in U.S. popular culture regarding Jewishness.”  Itzkovtiz takes note of a few films that illustrate this “not-so-subtle shift”:

Independence Day with all the expectations it places on Jewish shoulders is just one example…The Billy Crystal vehicle City Slickers (1991) – a banal formula comedy that re-imagines Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (1974) with yuppie angst replacing giddy anarchy – was an early touchstone in this process.  Such films’ aggrandizing but flattening out of Jewishness also helps explain why critics seem to read American mass culture’s relationship to Jews in such disparate ways.  (235)

The casting of Seth Rogen gives us an excellent example of this “flattening out of Jewishness.”   As a part of this process, Rogen goes from a character who transforms from a schlemiel into a responsible adult – as in Knocked Up – or from an outright schlemiel – in films such as Pineapple Express or Superbad – to the son of a WASP whose dreams become realities by way of inherited wealth in a film like The Green Hornet (2011).

I was astonished by what I saw in this film because it took Rogen’s already post-schlemiel character of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008) and brought it to an entirely different level.  In Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Rogen plays a character who has a business idea and works it with other odd-balls; but, in comparison to what is shown in Knocked Up (regarding a porn-on-the internet business), this business is actually more solid and tangible than the foolish plan sketched out in Knocked Up.  It is laughable but, ultimately, it is less laughable (as is Rogen).  The greater laugh can be found in the characters Zack and Miri find.   Moreover, in this film, Zack (Rogen) is in a start up kind of business.  He is not wealthy; he is borne out of a slacker ethos.

But in The Green Hornet, we are first introduced to Rogen by way of his character Britt Reid – a playboy; the son of a wealthy newspaper mogul.  We see him at parties with many women fooling around here and there – something we don’t see in his earlier schlemiel films.  And, upon waking with a woman he had ended up with in a party (in his mansion), we learn that he doesn’t own the mansion; he only lives in it.  Nonetheless, he is still a playboy.  And his father is a consummate WASP by the name of James Reid.

In this film, not only is the schlemiel effaced but any sign of Jewishness is as well.  (To be sure, Rogen’s characters always had some small hint of Jewishness, but this film leaves no doubt in our minds that this is no longer even on the table.)  And instead of the Jew being the genius-geek-schlemiel who works together with another minority (as we see in Independence Day by way of Jeffrey Goldblum and Will Smith), we see an inversion of the geek, genius position.

Now, an Asian and not a Jewish character plays the “geek.”  But Kato (Jay Chou) isn’t exactly a geek in the sense Goldblum was; in fact, he’s really cool.  He rides a cool motorcycle, invents things like a special espresso machine (that fires up like a jet engine),  bulletproof glass, a hidden liquer cabinet, etc.  He’s a “genius” who Britt Reid (Rogen) takes as his guide.

Now the dreams we bear witness to are not the dreams of a schlemiel and they are not the dreams of a Jeff Goldblum who, in the process of fighting with Will Smith, becomes a man.  Rather, Kato is already a man.  And Rogen, who is already a WASP yet not fully integrated into the task of making wealth (as was his father), takes on Kato as a cool kind of partner (who, in reality, takes the role of a kind of father figure or midwife for Rogen).  Through Kato, Britt becomes a superhero.

And even though we see comic blunder on and off the film, such as in his encounter with Cameron Diaz (Lenore Case) or with many others, this is overshadowed by his comicbook heroism.  And that’s the point.  In the end, he’s no schlemiel or fool; he’s a responsible hero who can fight crime.  He’s not Clark Kent; he’s the Green Hornet.  Nonetheless, the end of the film includes a few comic moments.  But, as I noted, this doesn’t overshoadow or contaminate the heroism so much as make it a little more human and mundane.

This gesture away from the schlemiel toward the hero speaks to what Hannah Arendt said in the “Jew as Pariah” regarding the “failure” of Charlie Chaplin’s Hitlerian schlemiel in his film The Great Dictator (1940).  For Arendt, it failed because people wanted Superman and not Chaplin’s schlemiel.   And, I would add, they wanted the everyday hero.  Here, Rogen isn’t simply a working class hero or a slacker hero.  He’s a hero who comes from wealth.  And what we get is a spotted hero who is a little silly and a lot like us.  The potential of the schlemiel that we see in Yiddish literature or even in I.B. Singer or Saul Bellow is left behind for a character devoid of anything Jewish or anything that challenges what Ruth Wisse – in the first pages of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero – would call the “political and philosophical status quo.”

As a final note to this blog entry, I just want to point that one of Rogen’s most recent films, Guilt Trip (2012) casts him with a very Jewish mother (Barbara Streisand).  But in this film she plays the schlemiel, not he.  In fact, he’s the responsible one.  Regardless, the schlemiel that we see, with all of its little Jewish mannerisms, shows us something flat and ineffectual.  The schlemiel we see is cast as an “older mother” who is full of life but unable to fully navigate herself through modern life.  We – as audience members – are supposed to laugh at her lack of technical expertise and her lack of decorum.

But I find nothing funny here.  In fact, I find it quite sad that, as a Jew, I have to see this kind of representation.  The schlemiel is done a disservice in such silliness and such a condescending reading (although Streisand does her utmost to play the absent-minded one, I found it to be too schmaltzy and even insulting).

That said, I hope to return to this film and others of Rogen.  This blog entry is more or less a sketch of how Rogen has been casted.  And, in many cases, since he writes many of the films he stars in, he casts himself in this way.  Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the schlemiel would be of great use to him; but, then again, that’s not what sells these days in Hollywood.