To review or not to review

Did the fact that character Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman)  wouldn’t ‘roll on Shabbos’ offer enough of a Jewish hook to make ‘The Big Lebowski’ a film the Jewish media should review?  Or maybe because the film’s writers/directors are Jewish?

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus & ELLEN FUTTERMAN, Editor

memorable scene in the 1998 cult comedy, “The Big Lebowski,” comes when a gun-carrying Vietnam vet named Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman), learns a bowling tournament is scheduled for a Saturday. He’s agitated, explaining to his bowling buddies: “I don’t roll on Shabbos!”

“How come you don’t roll on Saturday?’ asks Donny (Steve Buscemi), one of Walter’s buddies.


 “Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest,” Walter, a Jewish convert, replies. “That means that I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t f—— ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I  . . . don’t f—— roll!”

Other than Walter and the Jewish identities of the director/writer duo Joel and Ethan Coen – whose movies are rarely Jewish-themed — “The Big Lebowski” wouldn’t normally warrant a film review in a Jewish newspaper. But the film is a good example of so many throughout the years that are sprinkled with Jewish characters, references and asides. 

That begs the question: What makes a film sufficiently “Jewish” in content, creation, themes and performances to merit a review in publications such as the Light? The answer isn’t easy and the considerations that lead to it are often quite murky.

In 1977, this newspaper reviewed “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” solely because its non-Jewish star, Diane Keaton, was the former girlfriend of veteran Jewish director Woody Allen.  After getting lots of questions about this decision, editors decided that for a film to be reviewed in the Jewish Light, it should be more than Jewish “Lite.”

That stretch might appear beyond the line, but where do we draw the line in the first place?  

Clearly films that center on Jewish history and events such as the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List,” “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Pianist,” among so many others) are no-brainers – they are reviewed without question. Ditto films which depict Jewish life and/or whose characters are unmistakably Jewish (“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Avalon”). 

There’s also a class of directors such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Barry Levinson, whose overall oeuvres and approaches to storytelling and filmmaking are suffused with so much “Jewishness” that they merit a review.

Those criteria are then weighed along with expectations of what we think our readers are interested in, and our own judgment calls, to produce what hopefully are fairly consistent decisions. 

Take, for example, the 1989 romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally,” in which Billy Crystal, who is Jewish, plays Harry Burns, who seems Jewish, while Meg Ryan, who is not Jewish, plays Sally Albright, who definitely is not Jewish. Still, the film invites comparisons to the classic Woody Allen-Diane Keaton romantic Jewish-Gentile comedy, “Annie Hall.” 

While there was no doubt that “Annie Hall,” with the Jewish lead character Alvey Singer (Allen) and numerous Jewish references throughout the film, merited a review in the Light, “When Harry Met Sally” was much more of a mainstream romantic comedy in which Jewishness was not central to the storyline. Do we review the film simply because Crystal, the lead actor, is Jewish, even though we don’t know for sure if his character is Jewish? 

Left at that point alone, the answer might well be no. But because the filmmakers were Jewish (Rob Reiner directed; the late Nora Ephron wrote it), and one of the lead actors was Jewish, the Light felt the film was likely to attract a large Jewish audience (which it did). So a decision was made in favor of a review.

On the other hand, the 2006 romantic comedy, “The Holiday,” about two lovelorn women on either side of the Atlantic (played by Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, neither of whom is Jewish) who swap homes to escape heartbreak, features the well-known Jewish actor Eli Wallach. He plays Arthur Abbott, an aging Academy Award-winning screenwriter from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who befriends Winslet’s character, Iris. A small but memorable scene unfolds around a Hanukkah party that Iris hosts for Abbott and his friends.

“The Holiday” was written and directed by Nancy Myers, who is Jewish. Yet despite this and the obvious Jewishness of Wallach’s character, the Light passed on doing a review. The Jewish elements seemed superfluous in this romantic comedy.

Sometimes, quite frankly, the decision is made for us. The new mother-son buddy film, “The Guilt Trip,” stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, both of whom are Jewish. After five decades of stardom, no actress screams “I’m Jewish” louder than the 70-year-old Streisand. For that reason alone, the Light would choose to review “The Guilt Trip.” But since the movie wasn’t previewed in a timely way, we so far have punted.  (Note to readers: It’s never a testament to a studio’s faith in a film when the only local screening is the day before it opens.)

So as you can see, the judgment isn’t always so easy. The “Jewishness” of a film is often in the eyes of the beholder, and we try to balance our journalistic knowledge with your expectations. Where do we draw the line?  As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said in response to a similar question, “we try to draw it in the right place.”