Jewtopia

Like vigilantes seeking justice or unexpected romantic connections, the juicy culture clash that occurs when two people from dramatically different worlds fall in love is a topic that remains a perennial favorite in Hollywood. From Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, filmmakers have explored this decidedly human phenomenon, wringing from the situation, every bit of the absurd comedy and or heightened drama it brings. In the funny and irreverent new film, Jewtopia, writer/director Bryan Fogel takes the former route, adapting his uber-successful, long-running off-Broadway play of the same name (written with Sam Wolfson) into a screwball comedy of manners that just so happens to include some of the most zany onscreen parents since David O’Russell’s Flirting With Disaster.

Perhaps that’s because like O’Russell, Fogel knew the importance of casting and fought for his own dream team of actors. “To this day, I still can’t believe the cast that came into this thing,” he says with the awe and exuberance of a proud first time filmmaker. “And the pairings! I mean, Tom Arnold and Camryn Manheim, you look at them and you’re like, Oh yeah, they could be married! Phil Rosenthal and Wendy Malick are actually good friends in real life, so there was already this organic thing going on between them. And Rita and John were constantly coming up with ideas together. They know each other because John has been friends with Tom for years and years.”

That’s Tom Hanks whom Fogel’s referring to, eternally A-List Mr. Nice Guy and husband of one of the film’s stars, Rita Wilson. Yet it’s Wilson’s onscreen spouse, played by the hysterical Jon Lovitz, who provides Jewtopia with its funniest scenes. Never afraid to march to the beat of his own drum, the comedy icon imbues his role as a nebbish Jewish dad with the same deliciously offbeat silliness that has pervaded so many of his beloved film and television roles (SNL, Big, A League Of Their Own, Mom And Dad Save The World, The Critic).

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And as Lovitz points out, it was incredibly important that he be allowed to do so. “I thought the script was funny, but I just didn’t want to play a stereotypical Jewish person that you see in movies. I get that it’s funny that Jewish people are neurotic, but I wanted to portray it realistically, or at least put my own spin on it.” Something he certainly accomplished with the help of his costar and long-time friend… “I’ve known (Rita) since I was about 25-  or 26-years-old. I was in The Groundlings with a friend of hers and that’s when we met. Then Tom hosted SNL on like my 5th show, and he came up to me and said, I think you know my girlfriend. After that, I ended up becoming real close friends with them as a couple. We always have fun.”

Speaking of fun… Fogel’s attempt to adapt his stage play to the screen might have been a massive undertaking, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable. “It was a major challenge but also really really fun because we got to totally reimagine things. When Sam and I first decided that we wanted to turn this into a film, it was like, oh, we’ll just take the play and change a few things, and from the first draft to what it became took about 200 drafts. If you read the play and you read the movie, the core comedy of these two guys looking for love – the Christian guy wanting to be with the Jewish girl, the Jewish guy running off with the Asian girl because he just can’t deal with his family -all that’s there, but the story and how it’s told, and the characters who come in are so different. “

Obviously, working within the parameters of independent filmmaking informed a great deal of this separation between both stage and screen and imagination and reality. Fogel explains, “We made this movie on a very tight budget and shot it in 21 days. (As a director), I’m saying, I want to shoot this like this, and we gotta do this and this and this, and we need two days to shoot this, and my producer’s going, yeah, we don’t have any money to do that, so you better figure out how to take that scene that you imagined with 500 extras and maybe have 20 extras, and maybe you’re gonna have two or three camera setups, and you’re not gonna have two days to shoot this scene, you’re gonna have four hours.”

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It was a situation that required hard work and adaptability; two things that Fogel’s handsome leading man, Ivan Sergei has in spades. A veteran of both the big and small screen, (The Opposite Of Sex, The Break-Up, Charmed, Jack and Jill) this gifted yeoman knows a thing or two about working on a high-pressure shooting schedule. In TV, you’re doing an hour of content every 7 or 8 days, all the time, so in this case, it was almost a luxury to have 21 days (the still relatively small amount of time the cast and crew had to film Jewtopia). Sometimes it’s frustrating because you want to do your best, but I don’t know when in life you can always have everything you want, so you just have to pick your battles and have fun.”

If only the film’s harried family units would take some of Sergei’s advice, they might actually discover all that they have in common. Lovitz sums it up accurately, “I think that at a certain point, every family is like these families. They all have the stuff that’s important to them that drives their kids nuts.” Sergei echoes that sentiment, This is just a way to take a topic and kind of compartmentalize it so people know what they’re watching but really, you can write this stuff about an Irish Family or an Italian family, or anyone.”

Bryan Fogel probably won’t be the person to make that film, but that doesn’t mean that he’s soured on the movie biz. “If you would’ve asked me, Do I want to do this again?, seven days into making the movie, I would have looked you straight in the eye and said, Absolutely not! But then as you go through the process and actually see it come alive and actually get to see it in a theater, in front of an audience, it’s incredible. I’m dying to be able to do it again.”