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.