Category Archives: Comedy

The Winning Season (2009), directed by James C. Strouse

Many years ago, I saw a very funny sports movie called The Bad News Bears starring Walter Matthau as the coach of a boys’ baseball team composed of untalented misfits. The narrative arc in The Winning Season is similar. The team is mediocre. The coach is a loser, and somehow he becomes a better person by working with the youngsters who bring out the best in him, all of this leading to a winning season. The concept is stale, but the treatment of this conventional story is warm and satisfying if you can tolerate the abundant profanity in the film that seems to be geared for a teen audience.

The Winning Season takes place in a small Indiana town where basketball is the main focus of the community. The girls’ team encounters challenging times when it has to find a new coach. The school principal desperately recruits his old friend Bill, a former athlete and high school coach, to coach the team.

But there are problems. Bill has a drinking problem. He also lacks people skills and offends almost everyone he meets. Moreover, he is not motivated to coach girls in spite of the fact that he presently has a lowly job bussing tables at a local restaurant. Reluctantly, Bill agrees to coach, but he is dismayed when he sees that only six girls attend practice and one has her foot in a cast.

Their first game reveals all their weaknesses. Bill accepts that reality, and proceeds to mentor them. They respond to his unconventional style and slowly begin to improve. They begin winning and advance to the sectional finals, where the girls are tested emotionally as well as physically. When one girls misses an important shot, Bill is there to remind her that the shot she missed will not be her last shot and that she still is a worthy person and athlete: “l’ve been where you are, you know? And this isn’t your last shot. Come on, l want you to get up now. Everybody come here. You played great. l want you to go in there and shake their hands, okay? Keep your chin up. There’s gonna be a lot of adversity, you know? lt’s only gonna make you stronger. You guys played a great game. Each and every one of you. l want you to feel good.”

Bill’s encouraging words reflect a Jewish approach to dealing with adversity. Rabbi Jonathan Feldman shares a story about a mother helping her daughter cope with hard times. The mother takes her daughter to the kitchen where she fills three pots with water and places them on a high flame. When the water is boiling, she puts carrots in one, eggs in another, and coffee beans in the last pot. After twenty minutes, she turns off the burners, and removes the carrots, the egg, and the coffee bean from their respective pots. She then asks the daughter what she sees. The daughter says she sees carrots, eggs, and coffee.

Her mother then explains: “Each of these objects faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld asks us to think about this: “Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after some trial, have I become hardened and stiff?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.”

The Winning Season reminds us that adversity can bring out the best in us.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain (2019), directed by Simon Curtis

A friend of mine has two dogs. What is unusual is that as a child, he was petrified of dogs. Yet now he is an adult and dogs are an integral part of his life. I am not sure why his attitude towards dogs changed, but it is clear every time I visit him that the dogs provide unconditional love for him, his wife, and his kids. Indeed, the dogs are a genuine part of his family.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a dog story, but we know that every dog story is really a story about people. The title of the film is a term used by Denny, an auto racing teacher and a race driver, to describe the particular skill of controlling the car when the surface of the road is wet and unpredictable. The term is a metaphor for being able to manage the unpredictability of life. Denny says it best: “The best drivers only focus on the present.” They do not let the burdens of the past or the uncertainties of the future prevent them from moving forward.

The film opens as Enzo, an old Golden Retriever, is near death and is waiting for his owner, Denny, to come home. Denny arrives and carries Enzo out of the house. As he does so, the film’s narration begins as Enzo begins to tell the story of his life.

Denny buys Enzo as a pup and the two bond strongly. A year later, Denny marries Eve, and Enzo’s life is disrupted for a short time until he gets used to sharing Denny with his beloved Eve. Eve’s parents, Maxwell and Trish, express misgivings about Denny’s career choice, and worry when Denny and Eve start a family.

Their daughter, Zoe, gives great joy to Denny and Eve and to her parents as well. Denny, Eve, and Zoe lead idyllic lives until Eve develops brain cancer. Her love for Denny and Zoe enables her to survive for a short time, but then she succumbs to her illness.

Denny is at a crossroads. He has left his racing career to care for his cherished wife and now he has to care for his daughter. Eve’s parents go to court to gain custody of Zoe, feeling that Denny is often absent from home and unfit to take care of her. The custody battle turns ugly when Denny inadvertently knocks down Maxwell, his father-in-law, causing him to break a rib.

Throughout all of this family turmoil, Enzo stays with Denny, serving as his quiet and loyal friend. Although Enzo cannot talk, his presence is comforting to Denny, and Enzo looks forward to time after death when he thinks that he will be reincarnated as a human being.

Enzo’s thought processes are given expression in his very human observations of his owner and the world around Denny. Judaism generally considers dogs as not having a soul like that of a human being; but, according to some Kabbalistic sources, dogs do go to “heaven,” and live some kind of afterlife.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin, a noted Jewish educator, writes: “while they are different from humans, animals too have souls that live on and can be elevated. This idea presents us with an enormous responsibility in our interactions with the animal kingdom. After all, the animal’s elevation in the afterlife can be dependent upon our positive interactions with it.”

Enzo probably would have a great life in the hereafter because of his interactions with his loyal and kind owner Denny. Their easy rapport with one another underpins a deep relationship between human and dog, a relationship in which Enzo gives emotional support to his owner who has endured the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for dog is kelev, which is a contraction of the words kol lev, meaning “a full heart.” The good dog is the one who is loyal, serving us with a full heart, reducing our stress and supporting us through tough times.

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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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