Drive. Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston. 100 minutes
Jerry: I wanted to talk to you about Dr Whatley. I have a suspicion that he's converted to Judaism just for the jokes.
Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person?
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.
So quips Jerry Seinfeld in one 1997 episode of his self-titled sitcom. Later, Jerry counters Whatley, a dentist, with a joke of his own: 'You know the difference between a dentist and a sadist? Newer magazines!' Jerry's jocular derision subsequently sees him labelled, farcically, as an 'anti-dentite'.
The episode represents one of the more obvious examples of Seinfeld's deflation of overly sensitive attitudes to cultural stereotypes, and of the comedian's healthy levity regarding his own cultural heritage (he and series co-creator Larry David were born to Jewish families in Brooklyn, New York).
It's an odd coincidence that Bryan Cranston, the actor who portrayed Whatley — the object of Jerry's satirical 'anti-dentitism' — more than a decade ago, is among the ensemble supporting cast of Swedish director Nicolas Winding Refn's Hollywood debut, Drive.
The film was, last month, the subject of a lawsuit from a Michigan woman who claimed she had been 'misled' by its promotional trailer. In alleged contrast to the trailer, 'Drive bore very little similarity to a chase, or race action film', claimed Sarah Deming, in her suit against distributor FilmDistrict.
Her claim has been widely derided. One sardonic but salient assessment on blog site The Stir notes that not only does the trailer contain 'scenes that were not filmed inside a vehicle' but it also 'seems to indicate that there's a story ... that doesn't involve people endlessly racing cars'.
However, beyond Deming's dubious claim about the misleading nature of the trailer, she makes a far more serious accusation: that Drive directs 'extreme gratuitous defamatory dehumanizing racism' and promotes 'criminal violence' against 'members of the Jewish faith'. This claim bears a closer look.
First it needs to be said that Drive's critical acclaim (Rotten Tomatoes score: 92 per cent) is not misplaced. This is an intense, meditative yet brutally violent film noir about a Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) who moonlights as a criminal wheelman. It is a stylish, assured, character driven thriller.
We see the impossibly stoic Driver's soft side through his interactions with mechanic mentor Shannon (Cranston), and with attractive prison widow Irene (Mulligan) and her son. Later, we see the violent depths that churn beneath his stillness, when a job gone wrong sees Driver targeted by gangsters.
Nino (Perlman) and Bernie (Brooks) are indeed nasty pieces of work. They preside over criminal activities with arrogance and amorality, and substantiate sinister personas with easy violence. But it is the fact that they happen to be Jewish that raised the ire of Deming and her lawyer, Martin Leaf.
Responding to a post by film blogger Jonathan Poritsky, who said he was 'offended as a film lover, as an American and as a Jew' by the lawsuit and commended Drive for its portrayal of 'powerful' Jews, Leaf (who is also Jewish) decried the film's 'one-dimensional', 'senior citizen Jew stereotypes'.
This is tricky ethical territory. No one can take away Leaf's right to feel offended. But there's something to be said for Poritsky's counter-argument that far from being an anti-Semitic portrayal, the characters' Jewishness humanises what might otherwise be cardboard cutout villains.
'Their culture is what redeems them, what makes them worthy adversaries to Driver,' Poritsky notes. 'Why is Nino such a son-of-a-bitch? Because he's been trying to make it ahead in a world where he gets called "kike" and slapped around. That back story is what makes him relatable.'
There is an echo in this of remarks made by gay American filmmaker John Waters (who was in Australia last month performing his one man show ) regarding the seemingly overly-PC treatment of homosexuals in popular culture. Treating marginalised groups with a kind of blanket protectiveness, he suggests, robs those within the group of individuality, and reinforces their 'otherness'.
Seinfeld, like Jewish comedic forerunners including the work of Mel Brooks, demonstrated that in popular culture, it is possible for Jewishness to be a laughing matter. Perhaps the lesson from the Drive controversy is that in a post-politically correct world, it's okay for Jews to be bad guys, too.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.