Review: ‘The Hebrew Hammer’

There's an infectiously silly, undergraduate spirit at work in "The Hebrew Hammer," dedicated to all the Jewish brothers and sisters who've had enough of the gentile. Headlined by Adam Goldberg as a "hard-hitting Heeb" from Brooklyn, the action comedy was expanded by debuting director Jonathan Kesselman from his short film.

There’s an infectiously silly, undergraduate spirit at work in “The Hebrew Hammer,” dedicated to all the Jewish brothers and sisters who’ve had enough of the gentile. Headlined by Adam Goldberg as a “hard-hitting Heeb” from Brooklyn with a mission to save Hanukkah, the action comedy was expanded by debuting director Jonathan Kesselman from his USC short film. Although amusing as often as not, the material remains more comedy-sketch fodder than a fully developed feature. While theatrical exposure seems assured, specificity of the humor may limit the commercial arena to key cities, with subsequent ancillary life a better bet.

A good-natured Judaic spin on the ’70s Blaxploitation genre, “Hammer” owes much to Mel Brooks and to the “Naked Gun,” “Airplane!”, “Austin Powers” tradition of broad comedy. But with the joke already stretched, a run of sequels — “The Spy Who Shtupped Me,” perhaps? — looks unlikely.

Introduced in a funny spoof on the “Shaft” title song, Mordechai Jefferson Carver (Goldberg) steps in to defend a neighborhood Jewish kid from bullying goyim, encouraging him to feel pride in being “a bad, bold, big-nosed Biblical brother.”

A “certified circumcised dick,” Mordechai’s private investigator agency is in meager demand until called upon by the Jewish Justice League, a secret anti-denigration org headed by Chief Bloomenbergansteinthal (Peter Coyote). Despite JJL reservations about Mordechai, and the detective’s reluctance to take the case, the chief’s comely daughter Esther (Judy Greer) convinces both of them.

The emergency at hand revolves around the ascension to power of Damien (Andy Dick), the evil spawn of Santa Claus (Richard Riehle), who had his liberal father gored to death by reindeer. Damien sets about imposing secular domination on the Christmas holiday by pushing bootleg copies of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Jewish schoolkids.

While Mordechai retaliates by circulating Hollywood movies featuring positive Jewish characters, stronger defense is needed. He and new flame Esther band together with Mohammed (Mario Van Peebles), head of the African-American Kwanzaa Liberation Front. They head first to the Holy Land and then to Damien’s North Pole sweatshop to kick the new meshuggener Santa’s butt.

Driving a cool Cadillac and dressed in Superfly black leather pimp wear together with a yarmulke and tallit, Goldberg’s goofy earnestness to a great extent holds the uneven material together. The Hassidic hero is both sexy, swaggering tough guy and whiny, put-upon mensch, stressing and shvitzing whenever the JJL chief reminds him the preservation of Jewish heritage rests on his shoulders.

A further chink in his armor is his overbearing mother (Nora Dunn), who unwittingly trains him to use the most fearsome weapon in his arsenal: Jewish guilt.

Kesselman’s thin script generally is funniest when it’s riffing on Jewish stereotypes and goyish bigotry. Detours into other areas, like Farrelly brothers-style gross-out humor feel less fresh. Hollywood digs, however, are wryly amusing.

While Greer could perhaps have vamped it up a little more, the supporting cast gets with the program. Dick’s dirty and demented MTV persona possibly represents a useful marketing tool to help lever the pic beyond the shtetl. In a nod to prototype Blaxploitation pic “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” writer-director Melvin Van Peebles (Mario’s father) makes a brief appearance, as does former NYC mayor Ed Koch in a pointless cameo.

Lively widescreen lensing, solid production design and a score full of funky electronic grooves and irreverent songs (such as post-coital ballad “Come Light My Menorah”) combine into a sharp but not unduly slick package for the low-budget feature.

The Hebrew Hammer


A Content Film presentation of a Jericho Entertainment, Content Film production. Produced by Josh Kesselman, Sofia Sondervan, Lisa Fragner. Executive producers, Edward R. Pressman, John Schmidt. Directed, written by Jonathan Kesselman.


Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Kurt Brabbee; editor, Dean Holland; music, Michael Cohen; production designer, Cabot McMullan; art director, David Ellis; set decorator, Shane Klein; costume designers, Alysia Raycraft, Michelle Phillips; sound (Dolby Digital), Theresa Radka; associate producers, Aimee Schoof, Isen Robbins; assistant director, Urs Hirschbiegel; casting, Valerie McCaffrey. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Park City at Midnight), Jan. 23, 2003. Running time: 85 MIN.


Mordechai Jefferson Carver - Adam Goldberg Esther - Judy Greer Santa Damien - Andy Dick Mohammed - Mario Van Peebles J.J.L. Chief - Peter Coyote Tiny Tim - Sean Whalen Jamal - Tony Cox Mrs. Carver - Nora Dunn Santa - Richard Riehle Sweetback - Melvin Van Peebles

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