Jewish World Review May 8, 2003 /6 Iyar, 5763

Thankfully, "It Runs in the Family" doesn't in most Jewish ones

By Elliot Gertel

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | At first blush, it is hard not to view "It Runs In The Family," still out in theaters, as anything but an attempt to one-up "On Golden Pond."

The latter, of course, is the two-generation Fonda family classic. The former stars three generations of Douglases: Michael, his dad, Kirk, his son, Cameron, and his mother, Diana (Kirk's ex-wife of 50-plus years).

What "It Runs In The Family," actually is, however, is a toldos, or genealogy, of frustrated, purposeless, irresponsible Jewish men kept afloat by the patriarch's law firm. None of the Gromberg males, from eleven to eighty-something, is interesting or likable. Whatever affection we feel for them is simply because of their resemblance to popular actors who belong to a preeminent show business family.

With the inability to make their characters interesting and affecting to the audience, the producer, the actors and writer Jesse Wigutow try to push any and every emotional button possible to stir up pity in scenes.

Centered on the grandfather, Mitchell (Kirk Douglas), moviegoers are supposed to recognize the "understandable" growing pains of an intergenerational tug of war in:

But these behaviors instead come across as symptoms of an across-the-board (or, rather, up and down the family tree) lack of personality, vision and standards.

Grandfather Mitchell is especially lacking in dignity and in any role model qualities. When, for instance, he learns that his eldest grandson, Asher, has a girlfriend, his first question is: "Are you shtupping her [using a vulgar Yiddish term for having sexual intercourse]?" When Asher responds, "Not yet," Grandpa asks, "Why not?"

As insight into family conflict, this film fails miserably. It does not resolve the issue it regards as most crucial — namely, the circumstances under which Mitchell and Alex, as the elder father and son, can advise and criticize one another.

Mitchell insists that while it is hard for him to express his love for his son, this does not mean that he does not feel that love. At one point he suggests that "telling it like it is" is his way of showing love.

As love-giving or as constructive criticism, Alex doesn't buy it, either. He retorts that Dad does not tell it "like it is," but "how you like to see it." That's about as "deep" as it gets with all the father-son relationships here.

For some odd reason, Kirk Douglas — née Issur Danielovitch — who in recent years has begun to express interest in the heritage he long ago abandoned, chose this as his "Jewish family" film. That was a bad decision, given its relegation of Jewish ritual to a few fragments of a Passover seder which never rise above dinner table insults and cell phone interruptions.

In fact, the only witty remark occurs when Alex says to his elder son, Asher: "At least you got here before Elijah did." The film might have been interesting as exploration of Jewish life and lore had the Elijah motif been woven throughout. But the Douglases and their associates had other ideas.

"It Runs In The Family" is not just unfriendly to Jewish rituals and practices. It doesn't give them a chance to be comforting, uplifting, therapeutic or even worthy of respect.

At one point, Rebecca (Bernadette Peters), the daughter-in-law of Kirk Douglas' character, Mitchell, asks him if he was happy with a particular funeral service that was "not very religious." He responds by taking a pot shot at Jewish ritual practices.

But the shrugging off of a backyard funeral, devoid of any traditional prayers — though the men did wear yarmulkes — is not the worst problem here. Of more concern, perhaps, is the elaborate casket displayed in violation of the sensibilities of halacha, Jewish Law, which emphasizes simplicity and equality in funerals.

Worst of all is the scenario when Mitchell and Alex claim the body of another person close to them and decide that this person would have wanted to be sent to death with a boat as a funeral pyre.

Mitchell insists that Alex help him load the body into a boat and set it ablaze as they release it into the lake near their lavish summer home (where the other funeral took place).

The scene only highlights the irresponsibility and incredible stupidity of these Jewish men, both lawyers who ought to know better. They run into their car and make their escape, and are soon passed by fire engines, apparently heading toward the "pyre." Any alert and sensitive moviegoer would flinch at such reckless and shameless endangerment of the forests and homes surrounding the lake.

The scene is even further vulgarized by Mitchell shouting at the burning body the first words of the Mourner's Kaddish and of an ancient Jewish affirmation of faith, "Baruch Shem Kavod—Blessed be the Name, Whose glorious kingdom is eternal." The use of sacred liturgical words while defiling a body with fire, a violation of every traditional Jewish teaching regarding "kavod hameis-honor to the dead" is nothing short of sacrilege.

I do not doubt for a moment that the motivations for producing "It Runs In The Family" were noble and that the filmmakers really believed they were honoring Judaism and "family values."

Sadly, that may be the best commentary one can offer on most efforts to bring "Judaism" to current film.

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Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel, JWR's resident media maven, is
a Conservative rabbi based in Chicago. His latest book is "What Jews Know
About Salvation" (Eakin Press, Austin, TX). To comment, please click here.


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© 2002, Elliot B. Gertel