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Idol Chatter

The relatively minor Jewish holiday of Purim is having its moment in the cinematic sun. First came “One Night With the King,” a dramatization of the Book of Esther, which is read in synagogues on Purim and whose story the holiday commemorates. Now comes “Home for Purim,” a small independent production about a 1940s Southern Jewish family whose matriarch is dying of cancer and dreams of one last Purim together with her family–including her estranged lesbian daughter. And it’s getting some surprise Oscar buzz.

Well, sort of. Actually, the movie is “For Your Consideration,” and it’s the latest send-up from Christopher Guest, maker of the immediately classic mocu-mentaries “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” and “A Mighty Wind.” Here, ditching the mocu-mentary format for a straight-up comedy, Guest and crowd skewer Hollywood and its vapid, ego-driven personalities. The movie focuses on the making of, yes, a small indy picture named “Home for Purim”–and what happens to this modest artsy production and its low-key actors when awards buzz comes its way.

Though the characters and set-up offer plenty of laughs, it’s the on-set scenes that prove most hilarious here. We see much of “Home for Purim,” and somehow, in Guest’s hands, the mere presence of a Southern Jewish family dropping Yiddishisms and Jewish terms–a kvelling here, a nebbish there–was enough to keep me and the other critics at my press screening in stitches; this even though my own father comes from a 1940s Southern Jewish family and my grandparents mixed their thick Southern accents with plenty of Yiddishisms and Jewish terms. “Your coming home today was a dang mitzvah,” the father says to his son, a line that, minus the “dang” could easily have come from either of my paternal grandparents.

The main inside joke here is that despite offering spot-on Jewish authenticity, Purim is hardly the type of holiday that would draw dispersed, estranged family members back home or around which a dying mother would center her last hope. This underscores the overwrought, over-the-top nature of the drama and provides for more than a few laughs. The song the family sings at their festive Purim meal–complete with groggers (noisemakers) for blotting out evil Haman’s name–is worth the price of admission just for the one scene.

Beyond the Jewish riffs, “For Your Consideration” mercilessly mocks every Hollywood type, from the washed-up actor to the vapid publicist to the slick agent to the earnest screenplay-writer to the creatively clueless studio suits. Unlike Guest’s previous efforts–where the likes of dog shows and folk musicians are not exactly everyday comic fodder–this film often relies on well-worn, oft-used stereotypes, they still draw laughs here, no matter how familiar they are.

Though Guest’s movies always have their tender side beneath the parody, it’s even more pronounced in “For Your Consideration,” which even provides something of a moral message. It’s easy to see how sudden Oscar buzz would affect a small production featuring a mixture of young wannabe stars and old over-the-top career actors. Once the prize is dangled before them, that sense of mission–of art for art’s sake, of throwing oneself at a small project with limited expectations–melts away, as individual ego takes over and each principal actor believes the buzz must be focused on himself or herself. As you’d expect, jealousies arise, corporate interest–and meddling–is upped, and the result is far different, for the film and its players, than what was intended.

But don’t read too much into it. Mostly, go see “For Your Consideration” for the sheer joy of laughing out loud at the movies. Watch a clip:

I saw a promo for Monday night’s “Studio 60” episode and couldn’t help wondering: Is this the week that the show–to coin, or at least adapt, a phrase–jumps the cross?

As you probably know, “jumping the shark” has come to refer to that definining moment when a good TV show has gone bad, reached its peak and started downhill, pulled a stunt so absurd that it smacks of out-of-new-ideas desperation–like the Fonz water skiing in leather jacket and jumping over a shark, the archetypal and defining “jumping the shark” moment. To adapt the phrase, I’d like to propose jumping the cross as that defining moment when a TV show trying to cater to the coveted Christian crowd proves beyond a doubt its lack of authenticity, that its religious commitment is only skin deep, drawn up by secular writers without a real clue what it means to write authentic spiritual characters and storylines.

In the case of “Studio 60,” fans were disappointed when Harriet–the Christian character central to the show–voiced unapologetic support for premarital sex. But that was a throw-away line to a reporter and hasn’t been picked up again in the show. This coming week, however, Harriet apparently agrees to, or at least considers doing, a lingerie photo shoot. I have a feeling that, if she goes through with it, or even considers it seriously, Harriet, and “Studio 60” as a whole, will lose whatever credibility it has among religious viewers, and that will be a shame. The cross will have been jumped.

I’m still a fan of the show, and of Harriet, so my money is on the promo being over-sexed, and overselling that storyline. It’s hard to believe that the show’s creators would be that clueless; they’ve carefully crafted Harriet as a hip, fun, intelligent, and imperfect character who is also a passionate Christian and voice of morality and compassion–and I can’t believe they’d throw that away for a cheap lingerie-shoot episode. (It would be great to see her wrestling with temptation, as long as she maintains her essential, core values and isn’t too gleeful about the opportunity she’s considering.) But it is sweeps time, and I am sure others, including some of my fellow Idol Chatterers, would disagree with me on this one.

What can be said about the news revealed this week that football star turned B-list actor turned murder suspect in the “Trial of the Century” O.J. Simpson will be soon releasing a book called “If I Did It”? The book is a hypothetical telling of how he would have murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman back in 1995, if only he’d actually done it.

Umm, extremely bad taste? Revolting? Shameless? Puke-inducing? Sick , sick, sick? Yes, all that and more. Now, he’s not saying that he did it, but if he had gruesomely murdered his ex-wife (and the mother of his children, who must be thinking, “What the h*ll?”), this book will explain how he would have done it.

You may be wondering why this sensationalistic news (there will, of course, be an O.J. interview on the Fox network during sweeps weeks) should even make into this Idol Chatter blog.

Think of it this way: This blog is about the intersection of pop culture, religion, faith, and spirituality. This book of O.J.’s is so removed from faith and spirituality, so indicative that this man has not a moral, faith-ful bone in his body, that it’s like a horrific 10-car pileup of pop culture, faith, and spirituality. If we had one, O.J. would definitely make into the Idol Chatter Hall of Shame.

Please, I urge you to join the O.J. boycott. Don’t read this book, don’t watch his interview. Though there are immoral people in this world like O.J., I must believe that there many more good souls.

Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray probes the moral core of “Left Behind: Eternal Forces,” the video game version of the popular apocalyptic book series by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (See fellow blogger Paul O’Donnell’s post about the game’s pre-2005-Christmas debut for more information.)

Bray’s interest was apparently sparked by Rob Corddry’s satirical “report” inspired by the game, “This Week in God: God Kills Pt. 1,” which aired a few months ago on “The Daily Show” (do watch it–it’s very, very funny). Though “Eternal Forces” is a Christian video game (set in New York city–that city of hedonistic evil–18 months post-rapture), players contend with a surprising amount of violence in their attempts to stay alive amid the reigning chaos, according to Bray. Most shocking of all, players can take lives as they protect their own. You can fight evil forces with prayer, which “really enters in this whole new dimension called ‘spiritual warfare,’ said Troy Lyndon , CEO of Left Behind Games. “You can actually play the entire game without firing a shot.'” But Bray reports that you can also:

[C]reate a band of soldiers who’ll protect Tribulation Force territory from Carpathian incursions. But they’re supposed to use minimal force. Every time they kill, even if it’s justified, it weakens their moral fiber. Force them to kill too often, and they’ll fall away from the faith and move to the Dark Side.

The game’s ambivalent attitude to violence comes naturally to Lyndon, whose son has served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The more I’ve talked to my son, the more passionate it’s made me about understanding the realities of war,” said Lyndon. “When our kids are coming back from overseas, their hearts are affected. Their hearts are harder…. It’s a horrible thing.”

Lyndon agrees that something had to be done to put the Taliban and Saddam Hussein out of business, but he doesn’t like the way the conflict has morphed into an endless cycle of atrocities. “I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. And Lyndon has injected that same moral ambiguity into the game.”

Moral ambiguity is apparently what sets “Left Behind: Eternal Forces” apart from other, non-Christian video games for Bray: “It’s easy to jeer at a group of Christians seeking to make their mark in an industry that so often celebrates amoral savagery. Yet you can’t help respecting the effort that went into Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Like Ned Flanders, the absurdly pious neighbor on “The Simpsons,” the game is odd and sometimes annoying, but with a good heart.”

Though watch Rob Corddry’s report and, in addition to a laugh, you might instead find yourself rather disturbed, despite all the satire.