Comedy Central // 2003 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // December 6th, 2004
"Shabbat Shalom, motherfuckers!" -- The Hebrew Hammer (Adam Goldberg)
The Hebrew Hammer is the greatest "Jewsploitation" film ever made -- a feat that might actually be impressive if it weren't also the only Jewsploitation film ever made. Channeling the comedic spirits of Mel Brooks and Abrahams-Zucker without ever reaching their dizzying heights, the film parodies the funky heroes of the 1970s blaxploitation craze by substituting a crime-solving "Semitic Super Stud" in the lead role. With a barrage of self-deprecating Jewish humor, The Hebrew Hammer gets off to a fast and funny start, but unfortunately, like just a few schmeers of cream cheese for a basketful of bagels, it's all spread pretty thin by the end.
When ungrateful son Damian Claus (Andy Dick, NewsRadio) murders the big man with the bag, he takes over the family business with a plan to whitewash Christmas by doing away with all those troublesome competing holidays -- starting with Hanukkah. Chief Bloomenbergansteinthal (Peter Coyote, Erin Brockovich) of the Jewish Justice League gets wind of this development, and sends his daughter Esther (Judy Greer, 13 Going on 30) to enlist New York's coolest "certified circumcised dick," The Hebrew Hammer -- better known as private investigator Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Adam Goldberg, Dazed and Confused). With the help of Kwanzaa Liberation Front Leader Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahiem (Mario Van Peebles, Baadasssss!), Hammer attempts to overthrow the tyrannical son of Santa, thus saving Hanukkah and making his mother (Nora Dunn, Saturday Night Live) proud -- even though she insists that it's not like Hanukkah is a "high holiday."
The Hebrew Hammer opens with a scene from "Hanukkah Past": At an elementary school Christmas party, a young Mordechai Carver watches his Christian classmates greedily rip into brightly-wrapped presents while he plays with a cheap plastic dreidel. His teacher's insincere reprimand that the others should respect "Cha-noo-ka" can't make up for the behavior of the ill-mannered WASPs, and it's this key event that causes Mordechai to grow up to become the Hanukkah-avenging Hammer. Although the film primarily plays as a blaxploitation parody, contained within this little "origin story" is what The Hebrew Hammer is really all about. Like a big party to which you're not invited, or a lone matzo ball floating in a sea of Campbell's chicken broth, writer/director Jonathan Kesselman's script is a witty attempt to show the difficulty in keeping the Hanukkah flame burning in the shadow of North America's all-consuming Christmas wonderland.
While it's never pulled off quite as humorously as it could have been -- many jokes land flatter than a plate of latkes -- The Hebrew Hammer does manage to offer just enough worthwhile comedy to keep you on your toes. From the film's opening nod to Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, a title card dedication to "All of the Jewish brothers and sisters who had enough of the gentiles," The Hebrew Hammer tends to work best when spoofing the blaxploitation genre. Not only does the film feature a cameo by Sweetback himself, Melvin Van Peebles, but there's also a spot-on Superfly photo montage with Damien Claus's helper Tiny Tim (Sean Whalen, Charlie's Angels) passing out bootleg copies of It's a Wonderful Life in an effort to convert Jewish children. The film is also stocked with plentiful Airplane-like visual gags, such as Hammer giving the eye to a trio of girls while standing under a sign that advertises "100% Kosher Meat."
While there are certainly funny moments in the film, the concept seems more suited to a 25-minute sketch than a feature, and The Hebrew Hammer too often sinks into lowbrow humor in an effort to keep the outlandish premise working for the last hour. Not only do juvenile "poo" jokes make unwelcome and unfunny appearances, but the film also seems to be ticking items off a list of offensive Jewish stereotypes -- whining, penny-pinching, funny names, guilt-tripping mothers, Jewish American Princess. While Kesselman is clearly trying to diffuse these stereotypes rather than upset his audience, these scenes play far too broadly, relying on the same kind of humor that makes them offensive in the first place. Having Hammer talk "dirty" to Esther by whispering his plans for a stable job and private school for their kids is a joke that comes off just as obvious as it does lifeless.
Adam Goldberg is perfectly understated as Hammer, although Andy Dick, who seems to be doing quite a bit of improvising here, goes pretty far over the top as the film's villain. Your own personal tolerance for Dick's antics will certainly play a part in your enjoyment of the film, and if the idea of watching Dick maliciously berate his crippled assistant for 90 minutes appeals to you, then you'll certainly get a kick out of his act. I didn't. The scene-stealer turns out to be Bad Santa's Tony Cox, who works in Santa's workshop as a double agent for the Kwanzaa Liberation Front. While he was the foil to the unwholesomeness of Billy Bob Thorton's mall Santa in Terry Zwigoff's film, here he gets to let loose as a foul-mouthed elf that incredibly almost rivals Thorton's vulgar performance.
Paramount graces The Hebrew Hammer with just an absolutely beautiful presentation. Originally shot on high-definition and then blown up to 35mm, this is a brilliant transfer, with bold, deep colors. The image is always clear and well-detailed, giving the transfer a striking, film-like look that's a pleasure to watch. Similarly, there's a very nice Dolby 5.1 audio track here, with a deep, rich tone that does appropriate justice to the bass-heavy klezmer-funk score and renders all dialogue clear and easily understood. The surround channels even get a nice workout with atmospheric and directional effects. There are a few worthwhile extras on this disc, beginning with a hilarious commentary by director Jonathan Kesselman, producer Josh Kesselman, and Adam Goldberg. Balancing tidbits of production information with jokes and asides, the track is extremely funny as it is, but when Jonathan and Josh's mother shows up 20 minutes in and starts gossiping about her neighbors, it gets even better. My favorite extra has to be the original Hebrew Hammer short, which the film was based on. It condenses most of the best moments of the film into about five minutes, and by keeping its focus, it's debatably better than the feature itself. Also included are some inconsequential deleted scenes and outtakes, and text biographies.
Even though the film was obviously made for very little money, it looks deceivingly professional -- as impressive as similar big studio comedies as Austin Powers and Undercover Brother, two films which bear a striking similarity to The Hebrew Hammer. The humor may play a little broad, but for most, this Hanukkah treat should make for a decent enough holiday rental, especially for those of the Jewish faith.
It may be 100% kosher, but this film is only about 80% innocent.
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Comedy Central
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Adam Goldberg, Josh, Jonathan and Sandra Kesselman
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site