Movie Review: Shiva Baby

It’s no secret that Jews, who make up just 2.4 percent of the American population, have an outsized influence in Hollywood. (If you don’t know why that is, read “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler.) Perhaps because of that, moviegoers have been treated to a number of iconic Jewish characters on screen over the years from Marjorie Morgenstern (MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR) to Fanny Brice (FUNNY GIRL), Alvy Singer (ANNIE HALL), Lenny Cantrow (THE HEARTBREAK KID), Frances “Baby” Houseman (DIRTY DANCING), Cher Horowitz (CLUELESS) and many others. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these characters are “hyperbolic caricatures”, as Malina Saval recently wrote in Variety (June 18, 2021). Saval argues that such stereotypes provide fodder for anti-Semites wherever they are. Do anti-Semites really need movies to justify their animus? Haters gonna hate. Regardless, Saval’s message to Hollywood is to start focusing on what she calls a “simple, boring truth”: Jews are human.

Does that really need to be said in 2021? Maybe it does if first-time feature director and writer Emma Seligman’s film, SHIVA BABY, is any indication. Although the story’s protagonist, Danielle (Rachel Sennot, TV’s CALL YOUR MOTHER) is bisexual (a “human” Jew, at last!), she’s also neurotic (but still a caricature). Worse, though, are her parents, Joel and Debbie (character actors Fred Melamed and Polly Draper), who are nebbishy and overbearing respectively. Such stereotypes may have been amusing in a Woody Allen film from 35 years ago; today they are not. But what do I know sitting here in Hong Kong where, if anything, philo-Semitism exists? Movie critics on both sides of the Atlantic are happily comparing Seligman’s style to Allen’s, but while 1940s characters like Joey Nichols are relatable to people my age (my aunt’s brother, Max Rothbart, was my Joey Nichols), I shudder to think that Jews like Joel and Debbie exist today. I certainly haven’t come across people like that in 40 years. Then again, I’ve never been to a shiva (house of mourning) in New York.

Seligman does have a good premise with SHIVA BABY though. Danielle is about to graduate from university and she’s up in the air as to what her next move will be. To supplement the allowance she receives from her parents, she takes up a sideline as a sex worker, which she calls “babysitting”. Everything seems to be going smoothly until one of her clients, Max (Danny Deferrari), shows up at the same shiva house where she and her parents are paying their respects. Adding to her woes, her high school fling, Maya (Molly Gordon, BOOKSMART) is there too, as is Max’s shiksa goddess wife, Kim (Dianna Agron, TV’s GLEE). (Agron, by the way, is Jewish, which just goes to show that we don’t all have dark hair and big noses.)

What would have been funny/unique/edgy is if Danielle had maintained her control over Max and managed the menagerie of characters around her as they all try to figure out what she’s been up to. Instead, she’s immediately reduced to being an angsty twit who does immature things like sexting nude pictures of herself to her client while he’s standing next to his wife. For someone who clearly sees her relationship to Max as nothing more than transactional, her resentment that he lied to her about his family status seems unjustified. Max, too, has unjustified feelings. He throws shade at Danielle when he learns that it’s not her but Maya who is going off to law school in the fall. Oh, they lied to each other. Boo hoo.

As admirable as it is that Seligman wanted to create modern Jews for today’s audiences, she really ended up with 1980s movie versions of them. In that respect, she is like Woody Allen. It’s long past the time, though, where Hollywood and young filmmakers like Seligman need to move past the bagels, schmaltz herring, Manichewitz and angsty characterizations to get laughs. Audiences — and Jews — deserve better. SHIVA BABY is nothing to celebrate.

SHIVA BABY was released in June in cinemas in the US and is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

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