Oy Canada: GOON And The Apotheosis Of Jewish Wish Fulfillment

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Oy Canada: GOON And The Apotheosis Of Jewish Wish Fulfillment
In one of the many classic scenes from the 1980 film, an old lady asks the stewardess aboard her AIRPLANE for something "light" to read. She's in turn handed a "leaflet" entitled  "JEWISH SPORTS LEGENDS".

Cue audience laughter.

It's long been a running joke, especially in Hollywood where the studios did much in their first 50 years to diminish explicit Jewish content in their films, that those of this particular race or faith aren't quite as physically capable as their gentile brothers. In actuality, during the early 20th century, many sports, from boxing to football, were littered with famous (and capable!) Jewish athletes. Ever since, the list has diminished dramatically, so that tales of Sandy Koufax skipping the world series for Yom Kippur is seen as a form of heroic tale for young Jews akin to Muhammad Ali refusing the call to fight in Vietnam.

As a secular Jew, I've long described my connection to Judaism to my fellow countrymen as being very similar simply to being, well, Canadian. For the most part, particularly in metropolitan areas like Toronto, Canadians don't bother with as much patriotic hoopla as what we tend to see from our American cousins. We define ourselves, at times, as being "not-American", not part of the dominant culture on the northern part of this continent. We have a quieter, more subdued form of connection with our federation, less passionate, somewhat more pragmatic. Yet there is a strange kind of National pastime for us to obsess in our media about a given star or performer who goes down south, or to Europe, and finds great success. There's a  kind of proud inclusion of that individual who may not have achieved much in their hometowns here, but when they're discovered on YouTube like Bieber, pulled into LA studios like Alanis or Vegas like Celine, or drawn to the bright lights of Hollywood like the Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, we get a bit unnaturally attached to them.

Somehow, then, the spotting of successful out-of-country Canadians becomes a National pastime ("Hey, Captain Kirk's Canadian!"), one that draws us together regardless of political preference, ideology, religious or cultural background, it's what basically ties us together as Canadian. Well, that and flags on our backpacks when we travel through Europe, an easy way of distinguishing us from our more, er, gregarious neighbours to the south. Strangers you'd never talk to back home are now your new best friends, all because you recognized something common as marked by a patch on a piece of luggage.

In an extremely similar way, Jews enjoy recognizing other Jews, by recognizing the shared commonality of being an "other" from the dominant religious (rather than political) culture. It's the basis of the humour of Sandler's (Jew!) exquisite Channukah song, where through mathematical precision he details with glee the percentages of certain members of the tribe. There's even a wiki article that details the variations of this song, with new members added to the list.

Normally, Jews are quite suspicious of lists, for obvious reasons. Yet when we begin to detail our own lists of cultural icons it becomes something that ties all forms and sects of Judaism together.

That, and a love of chicken.

So, you can imagine how exciting it is when those of us up here get to have a double whammy - a successful Canadian Jew! We look to the Seth Rogens, the Martin Shorts*, the Leonard Coens of the world and feel double amounts of nachas ("Hey, Captain Kirk's Canadian and Jewish!") .

The other key thing that ties our country together is, of course, hockey. Again, being from Toronto, I've had the love of the game systematically beaten out of me, but for the vast majority of this nation the game on skates really is the glue that ties us together. Our national teams serve as a blueprint of our various regions - sure, the players lack a certain amount of diversity, but from the frozen lakes of Northern Saskatchewan to the outskirts of some lonely town in Newfoundland, we draw players from throughout the land for a shared passion. There's not a person in this land that doesn't know, on some level, that every Saturday night is our Hockey Night in Canada.

It's under these circumstances that GOON strikes a quite remarkable chord. Jay Baruchel (Canadian Jew!) and his writing partners have crafted a supremely silly yet also deeply resonant tale of Jewish Hockey heroes. Sean William Scott (as Goyish a name as you're likely to see) plays the adopted son of one of our most beloved of all Cannuck-Semetic comedy stars, Eugene Levy. Now, to be fair, it's been decades since Levy was truly funny on a consistent basis. He's long been mired in AMERICAN PIE remakes and low budget crap. In GOON he does little more than mug for the camera bug-eyed. Yet he's still a favoured son. He's one of ours, and no amount of schlock will erase the remarkable work he's done with the Christopher Guest ensemble, or his long run on SCTV.

Most Jews on screen tend to look like Baruchel or Levy - wiry or roundfaced, slightly obnoxious, funny but not exactly the physical or social ideal. In other words, not "star" material. Even when they try to do Jewy superheroes, it falls as flat as GREEN HORNET, and it's not like Rogen played up any sense of Semetism there. But in Doug "the Thug" we can embrace the tall, angular beast as one of our own  - no longer the sidekick, we've got a genuine sport hero tough as nails, using his physicality rather than his wits to overcome his opponents. Strangely, this is exotic for us - for thousands of years Jews have embraced clever over brawn (David over Goliath), so when we get to be Goliath, at least on screen, it provides a certain kind of visceral thrill.

Take Spielberg's (under-appreciated) MUNICH - sure, if we had more guys that looked like Eric Bana and Daniel Craig, we'd have more heroic superstars on screen. I'm not saying there aren't tough-as-hell Jews, particularly Israelis, I'm saying they don't show up as actors on screen. The closest we get to Tom Cruise is Ben Stiller - not such a compromise, and certainly less mishuginah, but not exactly what's normally trotted out as a heroic leading male.

And thus we come to the most delightful part of GOON, the subversion of all our expectations.  For the physical beast at the heart of the film, the foil to Doug's thuggery, is Ross Reah. Seen bloodied and battered on the movie posters, Ross is a former NHL star led down to the minors for several altercations. He's a spent gladiator, looking for a last season to go out with whatever glory is still due to him. He come across as intense, bigger than life, a quiet thuggish brute with a deadly stare.

And he's played by a real life Jewish hard ass, Liev Schreiber.

From that gravelly voice often pimping out credit cards or narrating History Channel documentaries, Schreiber comes across as both aloof and dangerous. He can show up in action movies in a non-ironic way, there for physical presence rather than comedic relief.  In Schrieber, we find the ideal Jewy tough guy - put him in a poncho and 2-day beard in the middle of some Spanish desert and I'd believe him in any Eastwood role.

GOON adroitly plays on many of our nationalistic and cultural predilections to craft a pretty fun little film.  On one level it's just a silly hockey movie, speaking to those craving scenes of brutality on ice. But on another, deeper level, it serves as a kind of giant wish fulfillment for Canadian Jews. This is after all a well trodden road - after all, ever since a member of the tribe from Toronto helped create a certain Clark Kent there has been a long line of other Supermen created out of this culture.  Yet with GOON, Baruchel and his team don't hide the conceit, they don't bury the glee in which they can cheer, out in the open, for our Hebraic Goliath.

What's clear is this: GOON is not only by far the best hockey movie since SLAPSHOT, it is also the "Jewiest". It's neurotic, clever, deprecating, and at its heart a sweet story of dumb love and a dumb game. It indirectly highlights just how much of a bad ass Schreiber can be on screen, and lets us live vicariously through Doug's rise as one of our own.

I'm sure the film will work for other audiences, but for those of us in the unique situation of being Canadian Jews, always detached as we make our associations with others, it's nice to finally have two big guys to root for on screen. GOON, then, isn't just a hockey movie, it's quite simply the apotheosis of Canadian Jewish wish fulfillment.

Not bad work from some schmuck from Ottawa.

*As pointed out in the comments, Martin Short is in fact Catholic, his inclusion on this part of the article was done in error. So imagine I went with, I dunno, Paul Schaffer.
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CanadacineruminationsgoonHockeyjay baruchelJewyliev schreiberseann william scott

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Ard VijnMarch 6, 2012 8:57 AM

What a great, great review-slash-editorial!
Loved to read this, from beginning till the end.

Kurt HalfyardMarch 6, 2012 4:04 PM

Ditto!

Jason GorberMarch 6, 2012 5:16 PM

You are both very kind... I'm trying hard not to write a follow up about the difference between the grateful acceptance of those cool cats that converted into becoming Jews (Sammy Davis for one, and Little Richard by rumour), derision for those considered "fake" (Maddona's Kabala phase), and the incessant ploys we have of ensuring that no matter how much into Jesus Dylan gets, he'll always be the Uber-Zimmermensch to us.

But, clearly, that'd be taking things too far...

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawloNO65ZhGgngq8p0oMSvkMWTjK4_Jq4NgMarch 6, 2012 7:54 PM

You know, if you're so keen to know who's Jewish, you ought to... look it up.

Then you'd know that Martin Short is obviously not Jewish at all. And Jay Baruchel is a "quarter Jew" - albeit a quite interesting quarter - Sephardic from Algeria and Egypt, among other places. Still, that doesn't make his other three grandparents Jewish.

If most Jews on screen (I assume you mean Jewish characters) tend to look like Eugene Levy and Jay Baruchel, than that is unfortunate. It seems that most attractive young Jewish actors these days rarely or never play Jews - i.e. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Logan Lerman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Paul Rudd, etc. (and I haven't gotten to the "half Jews" yet - although Liev Schreiber is certainly one).

Corey Haim, a late Canadian Jew, never played Jews, and neither did Shatner (although he did play a Southern racist once). Neither did most other Jewish stars of Shatner's generation, like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, etc.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawloNO65ZhGgngq8p0oMSvkMWTjK4_Jq4NgMarch 6, 2012 7:56 PM

P.S. I would say the closest thing to a "Jewish Tom Cruise" of the modern day would have been Harrison Ford, or Michael Douglas, or Daniel Day-Lewis, or Sean Penn, rather than Ben Stiller (I know Stiller's mother converted to Judaism, but ethnically speaking, he's as Jewish as everyone I mentioned).

Jason GorberMarch 6, 2012 8:19 PM

Fabulous! Thanks for responding.

From your last comment, Stiller's as Jewish as me (my mom converted...Orthodox, but I think that still counts, no?)

DDL and Sean Penn are interesting claims, but I haven't seen either play anything near heroic - TROPIC THUNDER may not have been free from irony, but Stiller I think pulled off wearing a muscle shirt quite well.

Ford's of course mentioned in the Sandler song (half, but misidentified as "quarter", as per the wiki link I provided).

As for Michael Douglas, again an interesting take, but he's no tough guy hero (in fact, quite the opposite at times, such as in FALLING DOWN). His dad certainly played tough guys, but rarely identified explicitly as Jewish (SPARTACUS notwithstanding).

Baruchel's own status, as it were, may be up for debate, and the character he plays in the film isn't declared to be Jewish (unlike Doug "the Thug"). That said, my point is that (in a cheeky way) the film subverts the normal portrayal of physically heroic leads by making the star a Jew.

And your point about Martin Short is absolutely correct - it was a carry over from a previous version where I was listing Canadian comics we were unnaturally proud of, and I tacked him in with the double whammy "Canadian Jew" post. Mea culpa, and an excellent catch.

And, of course, by playing along, you've almost reiterated the point of the article - we're arguing details here, not the rules of the game.

Kudos for the comments, and thanks for reading the (admittedly silly) article!

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawloNO65ZhGgngq8p0oMSvkMWTjK4_Jq4NgMarch 6, 2012 8:44 PM

Actually, ''my'' mother's side isn't Jewish by birth or conversion... so I'm just messing with you there.

Spartacus wasn't Jewish... although I wish he was.

P.S., Eric Bana and Daniel Craig are both non-American, a point I make because most action heroes in U.S. movies these days are not played by Americans. It is kind of interesting.

The Three Musketeers, the recent bad one, is a great example of this - it stars an American Jew and a whole bunch of British people!

Jason GorberMarch 6, 2012 10:18 PM

Heh, SPARTACUS wasn't a Jew, but he's certainly Jew-ish...

There's a whole other debate about people from one ethnicity playing another - I for one have absolutely zero problem with that - they're acting, that's their job. It's that famous Quincy Jones comment responding to criticism about Spielberg filming COLOUR PURPLE, saying Steven didn't need to be from another planet to do ET.

The point, here, is that the =character= of Doug is explicitly Jewish, and a dumb, yet sweet and capable tough guy. The second point is that Liev plays a (presumably) non-Jewish character effectively, yet is himself (I'd argue) an archetypical tough guy.

Both those things are, I think notable, if only being exceptions that prove a norm.

Naturally, almost every community does the same kind of list making, but there's something quite central to both Canadian and North American Jewish culture, I'd argue, to find such delight in articulating just who's on a given shared list. It's a subtle thing, I think, and it's about all that provides commonality among a pretty disparate group that's surrounded by cultures far more prevalent. That results I think in a very different, perhaps slightly less boisterous thing than prevailing expressions of Nationalism or religious connections from certain more populous, prevalent communities.

To bring it all back, I found it pretty hillarious than in a Hockey movie, set in Halifax, I'd find an expression that's both so comedically and sociologically articulate.

Jason GorberApril 14, 2012 9:33 AM

This as pointed out to me by a friend another amusing point regarding the film - I was unaware that "Glatt" has the connotation of being strictly abiding by the rules, or, as I'm calling, it, "hyperKosher". Yet another example of the subtle genius of this masterpiece.