Category Archives: Comedy

Robot and Frank (2012), directed by Jake Schreier

A friend of mine recently wrote a book about his move to Israel and the many challenges he faced as a senior citizen in transitioning from one culture to another. As a senior, he felt a need to be productive, but his body told him that he could no longer function as a young man. However, he could use his memory and imagination to document his recent experiences, which he felt would be useful to seniors contemplating aliyah, emigrating to Israel.

I, too, found myself in a similar position. After teaching in Israel for five years, the Ministry of Education said I could teach no longer since I was well past the official retirement age. I was compelled, therefore, to find another way to earn money. And so I became a film critic, writing reviews for print media and on the Internet that connected Torah and secular culture. My role models were Abraham and Moses, biblical heroes who never retired, and twentieth century Torah luminaries like Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Moshe Feinstein, who never stopped teaching Torah.

Robot and Frank deals with the same issue that my friend and I experienced: how to be relevant as a senior citizen when you are no longer working a traditional job. Frank is a retiree living alone. His son, Hunter, who lives in a different city, tries to take care of him long distance, but it is difficult; so Hunter gives his dad a gift of a robot caretaker as a full-time companion who will serve both an aide and as a friend of sorts.

At first Frank does not want the robot; but over time they become buddies and Frank recognizes its value to him, particularly in regard to giving him an opportunity to use a skill set that he used as a young man. Frank, in fact, was a cat burglar who served prison time. Stealing gave him an emotional high and now he wants to experience this feeling again. He convinces the robot, who has no independent sense of morality, to assist him in his nefarious plans. For the robot, helping Frank regain a sense of self is technically therapeutic.

Things get more complicated as Frank begins to show signs of dementia. Interestingly, the book he enjoys reading at this time of his life is Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote, a story of a man out of touch with reality. It is only Quixote’s loyal companion, Sancho Panza, who enables him to function in a world that sees him as an anachronism. So it is that Robot enables Frank to remain meaningfully connected to the modern world.

As his robberies become more bold, the authorities begin to investigate and Frank becomes a suspect because of his past criminal record. Whether he goes to prison or a nursing home facility ultimately depends on the police retrieving information from the robot, who, although only a machine, has become humanlike, so much like a human that Frank is reluctant to wipe out his memory even when Robot reminds him, “I’m not a real person, Frank.”

Robot and Frank is a comedy, but it is also a serious meditation on aging. How will we deal with the inevitable transition from youth to old age, when our bodies will no longer work like they did when we were young? With what will we occupy our time? How will we find a sense of meaning and purpose when society marginalizes the elderly? The film provides no answers, but suggests that it is important to stay busy, to find an outlet for our creativity, and to use our imagination and our memory to inspire us as we get older.

 

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Sun Dogs (2017), directed by Jennifer Morrison

My oldest sister, Carol, had Downs Syndrome. She was always smiling and willing to help around the house. When she spoke, there was not a trace of artifice. She could never lie and whatever she said came from the heart.

From time to time, I would wonder what was Carol’s mission on earth? She obviously was very limited mentally, yet she had a knack of bringing out the best in others. I thought that perhaps, from the aspect of eternity, her mission was to make better anyone who had the good fortune to know her, to make that person more sensitive, more caring about other people, and more grateful for their own mental health. An encounter with Carol left the other person feeling blessed and appreciative about leading a normal life.

Finding one’s mission in life is the subject of Sun Dogs, a dramedy about Ned Chipley, a mentally challenged young man who wants to join the Marines. He sees his mission in life as saving lives, but he lacks the intellectual ability to actually serve in the armed forces. When he visits the Marine recruiting office, Master Sgt. Jenkins is reluctant to tell Ned that he does not qualify for soldiering. Instead, he tells Ned that he is needed on the home front to search for secret terrorists cells in civilian locations. In this way, Ned will function as a secret operative. Ned takes this charge very seriously.

Sgt. Jenkins gives Ned a deck of cards with pictures of the leading terrorists in the world. This becomes Ned’s “to-do” list as he searches out suspicious individuals who look like people depicted in his deck of cards.

Although Ned’s behavior is strange and idiosyncratic, he does listen to people who offer advice. He may be intellectually slow, but he does pay attention to the voice of others and gleans wisdom from them. For example, after he tells a friend that he feels his life’s mission is to save lives, the friend gives him mathematical proof that, over a span of ten years, 3000 people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Ned may have an opportunity to prevent those tragedies. It is a story he does not forget.

Almost all the characters in the film are decent. There are no villains, and most of the people are kind and sensitive to Ned’s disabilities and his mistakes in judgment. They, too, are flawed, but not in a terminal sense. They are on their own journeys to figure out the purpose of their own lives. They are good people who simply want more out of life. A seminal line, repeated at several points in the narrative, is that “everybody needs a purpose.” In Sun Dogs, we witness the decisions people make to define for themselves a worthy mission in life.

Jewish teachings encourage people to consider what is their mission in life. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks astutely observes that there is a difference between what we are good at and what we are called upon to do: “We can be good at many things, but what gives a life direction and meaning is a sense of mission, of something we are called on to do.” He continues: “Each of us is different. Therefore, we each have unique talents and skills to bring to the world. The fact that I am here, in this place, at this time, with these abilities, is not accidental. There is a task to perform, and God is calling us to it. Where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be.”

Michael Novak, an American Catholic philosopher, suggested asking yourself three questions to discover your calling: is it unique to you; do you have a talent for it; and does it give you a sense of enjoyment and renewed energy? Moreover, it is important to realize that you may not discover your purpose immediately. You may have to make many mistakes before you find your true mission in life.

Indeed, God gave each of us a task. There is specific work for us to do, kindness to share, loneliness to abate, pain to assuage, and broken spirits to lift. In Sun Dogs, Ned Chipley ultimately discovers his life’s purpose; his story is worth contemplating.

 

Instant Family (2018), directed by Sean Anders

I know a little bit about adoption because of information I have picked up from family and friends. I know nothing about foster parenting, which is why I was interested in seeing Instant Family, a film which depicts both the process of becoming a foster parent and the reality one faces once one becomes a foster parent. I realized that gleaning information from a Hollywood version of foster parenting is not totally reliable; but, nonetheless, it would give me an idea of the complexities that people face in the foster parenting world.

Pete and Ellie Wagner have been married for several years and have no children. They feel a void in their lives and, after some soul-searching, decide to explore foster parenting. Foster parenting may lead to adoption or may just be a temporary way to provide at-risk children with a stable and safe environment.

Two social workers, Karen and Sharon, introduce the Wagners, along with other parent wannabes, to the world of foster parenting, which considers diverse parent models including, among others, a gay couple, an interracial couple, and a very religiously devout couple.

After attending a fair where they can meet kids whom they may want to adopt, Pete and Ellie decide to provide a home for Lizzie, a teenager from a broken home. But there is one catch: Lizzie has two younger siblings, Juan and Lita, so the Wagners would have to foster parent three kids, not one.

In spite of the potential problems about which they are warned by Karen and Sharon, Pete and Ellie decide to give it a try. Very soon, things get hectic and Pete and Ellie begin to rethink their decision. Being part of support group for foster parents helps, but it does not solve the daily problems that occur.

Just when life at home is settling down, the Wagners receive word that the children’s birth mother, Clara, may again assume custody of her kids. Pete and Ellie, who are interested in adopting the kids, now have to come to terms with their mission as foster parents; namely, their goal is to provide a safe and stable environment for the children even if it does not lead to adoption.

Judaism places high value on taking care of the physical and educational wellbeing of children, especially if the kids are not one’s own. It is one of the highest forms of chesed, loving kindness.

Nowadays, in the contemporary therapeutic milieu, the ideal goal is to keep kids in the parental home if at all possible. However, if the child is at risk of severe bodily harm, sexual abuse, or other violent behavior, then foster care is appropriate. The operative word here in Hebrew is rodef, pursuer. Shelley Berger, director of Ohel, a Jewish foster care institution in New York City, states: “a threat to a child is paramount. It’s a case of rodef, a pursuer of life that must be stopped.”

Ohel does its best to place each child in a home that matches the needs of the child. The primary reasons kids go into foster care is because their parents are involved in substance abuse or the parents are teenagers, too young to care for children of their own. Within the Jewish community, the prime reason for foster parenting is parent mental illness, where parents can’t care for their children and wind up neglecting them. Foster care provides a chance for the child to be in a stable, caring environment while parents have an opportunity to get their own lives back on track.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, head of a Jewish outreach organization in Arizona, is the founder of Yatom, a Jewish foster care initiative. Yatom means orphan in Hebrew, and Yatom attempts to bring more families into the foster care orbit, its raison d’etre being to protect children, those most vulnerable in society.

Yanklowitz and his wife have four biological children and have fostered six kids. I asked him about his own experience with foster parenting and this is what he said: “Without a doubt, being a foster parent is a feeling unlike any other. There is a special, intimate, spiritual bond that you create with a child who is not biologically your own, yet, in many ways, is an irrevocable part of the family. My family has been fortunate enough to foster vulnerable children and, though the process has its challenges, we have come away knowing that we’ve made a difference in a child’s life even if they won’t remember us.”

Instant Family is both a serious and hilarious look at foster care in America. While its depiction is cartoonish at times, it does reveal major challenges in the foster parenting world. It is a film worth seeing and worth thinking about.

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Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg

I recently gave a talk on “kosher movies” to seniors in a New Jersey high school. In the Q&A after my presentation, one student asked why I did not discuss any superhero movie. The question reminded me that the cinematic points of reference in my talk were before the superhero craze in moviegoing. I was thinking of the past; the kids were thinking of the future.

Ready Player One is a story of the future, but rooted in the past. By exposing oneself to both past and future, our heroes learn that what links the generations is the human connection, not the artificial game, no matter how immersive it many be. Let me explain.

The story opens in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, in a place called “The Stacks.” It looks like low-income housing, constructed by using trailers stacked on top of one another, but separated by staircases and poles.

Wade Watts has no living parents and resides with his Aunt Alice in this run-down neighborhood. In this dystopian world, Wade, along with many others, escapes his dreary reality by entering the Oasis, a virtual reality world where people can find entertainments of all sorts and where they can be avatars, fictional representatives of themselves capable of extraordinary feats. Wade’s avatar is Parzival, a super cool dude who does not physically resemble Wade, who in real life is a brainy nerd.

This virtual reality of the Oasis world spans time. Once in it, a person can uncover the past as well gain insight into the future. These time shifts are both clever and humorous. There are memorable characters and scenes from cinema classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Moreover, a plethora of other pop culture iconic images and references inhabit the Oasis.

We learn that the Oasis was created by James Halliday and his friend and fellow scientist, Ogden Morrow. At his death, Halliday proclaims the ultimate challenge for his fans. He informs them that he has hidden an Easter egg, a secret, within the game that will be revealed after someone successfully completes three challenges. The reward: half a trillion dollars and total control of the Oasis.

Wade’s main competitor is Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of a nefarious high tech company that wants to sabotage Wade’s efforts to meet Halliday’s challenges. Sorrento wants to commercialize the Oasis and claim the reward money for himself.

After a number of visually immersive chases and battles, Wade and Halliday express their profound belief that the real world is more important than the escapism that the Oasis provides. That is the legacy they want to endure. Kenneth Turan, movie critic for the LA Times perhaps sums up the movie’s message best: “While on the surface, this futuristic film is a celebration of gamers, gaming and the pleasures to be found in immersive virtual reality, underlying it all is a heartfelt brief for abandoning all screens and enjoying the satisfactions of the real world.”

Mem Bernstein, a philanthropist, articulates this perspective in a message she delivered to a group of donors. To her, the legacy of real-world accomplishments is what really matters. She paraphrases the Ethics of the Fathers: “you are not expected to complete the task, but you should insure that there are others who will continue to work on it.” This is essentially what Halliday and Wade desire for the future of the Oasis in Ready Player One. It is okay to enjoy the fantasy world of the Oasis in the short term; but, in the long run, one should always remember to nurture the human connections that underpin it.

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What They Had (2018), directed by Elizabeth Chomko

From 1967 through 1970, I taught English in the evening division of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. It was an introductory course that included both literature and composition. On one evening, I took my mother with me so she could observe me as a teacher for the first time. Since most of my students were adults, my mother’s presence would not be noticed.

It was a special moment that I treasure. She had invested so much in my education that it gave me much pleasure to display my talents as a teacher to her. She never told me to be a teacher, but she always spoke in positive terms about the teaching profession. To her, it was an honest and dependable way to make a living.

I thought of that memory as I watched a scene in What They Had in which a parent finally sees his child as a competent adult, and that moment changes the entire relationship between them.

What They Had is the story of family that has to come to grips with what to do with their mother who is entering the stage of dementia. Ruth has Alzheimer’s, walking out of her home on Christmas Eve in spite of a blizzard outside in the windy city of Chicago. Fortunately, she returns home safely, but the incident is a catalyst for the family to make a decision about whether Ruth should be placed in an assisted-living facility or remain at home under the loving care of her husband.

Nicky, the son who lives in Chicago, is dealing with the day-to- day issues that come up and is functioning as the local caregiver. He is very tired and wants very much to place his mother in an assisted-living facility where they can take care of her properly. To make that decision, he needs his father to sign an authorization form and he needs his sister, Bridget, to approve the arrangement as well. He calls her and asks her to come from Los Angeles to Chicago, and she readily travels. Moreover, he wants Bridget to help him convince their father of the wisdom of moving their mother into a supervised residence.

Burt, their father, has been in love with Ruth for a veritable lifetime and feels he can provide the best care for Ruth, not an impersonal health care facility. Bridget is supportive of Nicky’s plan to move their mother, but she is also dealing with her own family issues that distract her. Her daughter, Emma, is uncommunicative and has stopped attending college classes, and Bridget feels emotionally distant from her husband.

Tempers flare as the family tries to sort out conflicts that have been dormant for many years, but now re-emerge because of the family dilemma that is consuming them. Things are messy, but there are moments of tenderness that surface and help ease moments of crisis. One such interlude occurs when Burt spontaneously visits his son Nicky for the first time at the bar that he owns. Nicky makes a “Manhattan” for him and his dad tells him it one of the best he has ever tasted. This small bit of praise by a father for his son does much to reduce the tension between father and son and alters their relationship.

The scene reminds us of how important it is to promote self-esteem in our children. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, a noted rabbi and psychiatrist, gives some practical advice: “God in His great mercy distributed various talents among people in the world. Everyone has some special talent. Be sure to point out to your child where his talents lie. This will enable his self-esteem to grow. Do not let a day go by without giving some praise to your children. This will help them to grow and to be a source of pride to you.”

One wonders how Nicky and Bridget would have turned out if Burt had consistently given praise to his children instead of constant criticism. Although it is clear that affection exists between parents and children in What They Had, it is evident that for it to grow and be strong, it needs to be planted in a garden of love, nourished daily with words of praise.

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Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

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Logan Lucky (2017), directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a school principal, I am sometimes faced with parents who, no matter the evidence, refuse to admit the shortcomings of a child. I recall one occasion when a student was caught plagiarizing a paper. At the subsequent meeting in which the teacher, the parents, and I were discussing what should be the consequences of this dishonesty, the boy’s father proclaimed: “My son never cheats.”

It was a troubling comment because it revealed an inability to accept truth and the consequences of lying. A similar inability to accept truth is evidenced by a prison warden in Logan Lucky, a humorous heist movie. No matter what the evidence, the warden denies he has a problematic prison population even when it is clear to the viewer that the prisoners are engaged in nefarious activities.

The narrative begins in a rural county in West Virginia when Jimmy Logan gets fired from his physically demanding job because he has a pronounced limp. The origin of his injury is a football injury sustained during his high school days when he was a star player. Now he is out of the limelight and working hard as a laborer to survive.

Desperate for cash, he enlists his brother, Clyde, and sister, Mellie, to assist him in robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race. There is one problem: they need the help of a safecracker, Joe Bang, who is presently incarcerated. Jimmy’s plan is both crazy and straightforward, and it depends on lots of uncertainties. First, they have to get Joe Bang out of jail surreptitiously. Then they have to break into the racetrack vault. They then have to abscond with the cash. They then have to return Joe to prison without anyone realizing he was gone. Finally, Jimmy has to arrive at his daughter’s beauty pageant on time. How all this works out is the stuff of movie magic. It involves a very willing suspension of disbelief.

The conceit that enables the robbers to succeed is the fact that the local authorities who are charged with finding the culprits and recovering the stolen money are not willing to accept criticism. It is easier for them to plead ignorance or to lie outright than to recognize and accept the stark reality of the crime with all its attendant consequences. Because of this desire on the part of the establishment to cover up incompetence and to avoid public ridicule, they inform the news media that the money has been recovered when they actually do not know if it has been or not.

In contrast, Judaism accepts the reality of sin and requires man to atone for bad behavior. There are no excuses and there is accountability. Unlike my high school parent who refused to acknowledge his son’s cheating, and unlike the establishment authorities who see the robbery as only hurting the insurance companies, Jewish law mandates candor, sincere regret for past indiscretions, and teshuva, repentance.

Repentance involves several steps: regret, ceasing the harmful behavior, confessing to God, and resolving not to do it again. Rabbi Shraga Simmons, a noted Jewish educator, shares a thoughtful analogy that illustrates how we should view the mistakes of a child: “Imagine a new child taking his first steps in front of the proud parents. He gets to his feet, takes a few steps ― and falls flat on his face. The parents clap with excitement and joy. But if you analyze the scenario, shouldn’t the parents be upset? After all, the child fell down! The answer is obvious. A parent doesn’t judge a child based on whether he walks or falls, but rather on whether he took a few steps in the right direction.” That mindset perhaps should have guided the parents in my school who, by protecting their son from the consequences of failure, taught him to avoid accountability at all costs.

Logan Lucky makes no moral pronouncements and the protagonists of the story do not necessarily walk in the right direction, but the film does provide an example of what can occur when people rationalize bad behavior.

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