Sarah Silverman gets a lot of mileage out of being a sexy girl with a dirty mouth. She uses her physical allure both to increase the shock of her material and to soften it — when a greasy brute like Andrew “Dice” Clay said ugly, obscene things it was difficult to be sure if he believed what he was saying or if, as he claimed, it was just his “character” speaking, but Silverman relies on our sense that this cute girl couldn’t really mean the awful things she says. When she talks about niggers or faggots or dirty Mexicans, we understand that she’s trying on attitudes that she finds offensive — but also funny; that the ignorant, hateful people she mimics are a golden target for satire, but so are the self-righteous watchdogs of political correctness who, if you tell them your best friend is black, will correct you and say she’s “African-American.” (A friend of mine is black, but she’s not African-American. She identifies instead as Caribbean-American — her mom is from Barbados and her dad is from Haiti — but prefers “black” as the more inclusive term, which just shows what a minefield you enter when you break your back trying not to offend.)
Twelve years ago, in The Culture of Complaint, Robert Hughes made a cogent argument that politically correct speech is just a smokescreen that allows us to feel, or at least look, like better, more thoughtful people while continuing to ignore very real divisions of race and class — it’s like putting a band-aid on an eviscerated torso. Silverman believes in ripping off the band-aid and playing around in the exposed guts, forcing us to look at our own prejudices and pieties, making us ask how far our attitudes have really advanced when choose our words with such deliberation but we still move to another seat when three black teens sit near us on the subway.
Silverman’s comedy is “adult” in the usual sense — actually meaning juvenile — but it’s also adult in its thoughtful, self-aware impiety, its disgust with hypocrisy. I don’t want to hand you some bullshit about the “healing power of laughter,” but there is something bracing, something genuinely freeing in the way she explodes racist ideas, allowing us to confront the things we don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, that we may sometimes think. For all the supposed “catharsis” we’re supposed to experience at the conclusion of classically structured genre films, Silverman’s new movie, Jesus is Magic, which is scrappily put together and doesn’t entirely work as a film, is one of the most cathartic experiences I’ve had at the movies in months. I walked out the theater feeling cleansed, relaxed, freed of guilt and anger and ambivalence.
Jesus is Magic is basically a record of Silverman’s standup act, but it’s introduced and interspersed with offstage sequences and musical numbers. The songs — all of which she wrote or co-wrote — mostly work, though they’re predictable spoofs of sunny Broadway-pop; Silverman, whose singing voice is surprisingly rich (though, like her speaking voice, it’s rather nasal), tends to start off in a conventional way, with cheery, banal lyrics, then segue into either obscenities or racial slurs, keeping that sunny disposition all the while. The little skits that open and close the show, in which she deals with friends played by Brian Posehn and Laura Silverman (her sister), are amusingly awkward, like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” if it were shorter and less painful. But the other skit, with Bob Odenkirk playing her manager, is overlong and unnecessary.
The director, Liam Lynch, plays by the usual filmed-standup book, alternating long shots, medium shots, and close-ups with the rhythm of Silverman’s performance. She’s a great camera subject — attractive women who are willing to look foolish always are — and Lynch and the cinematographer, Rhet W. Bear, catch the wonderful expressiveness of her face. She seems to have extra muscles around her eyes and mouth designed just to express special attitudes of exasperation, condescension, and hyperbolic good cheer. This is certainly one benefit of filmed comedy over a live performance — the folks in the cheap seats at a live show aren’t catching this stuff.
Silverman’s comic style is pretty basic, consisting mostly of clever one-liners with a perverse twist at the end, but it works, largely due to excellent timing and the way she turns a phrase. The variety and expressiveness of her vocal inflections are amazing; there’s no way to explain it in print, but she can simply mutter the words “Full-blown AIDS” and, in context, it’s uproariously funny. Yes, she actually makes jokes about AIDS — and also rape, September 11, and the Holocaust, and she makes them work. She even has a routine about what an asshole Martin “Loser” King was; she explains that she wants to be the first comic to shit on MLK.
In the press, Silverman is ceaselessly compared to Lenny Bruce, but for those of us between the ages of 15 and 35 (and really, you wouldn’t want a kid younger than 15 watching her, if only because she might hurt herself waxing her anus on Silverman’s advice) the more accessible parallel is Margaret Cho. There are similarities in their subject matter and their styles, but they approach their shows very differently. Cho has points she wants to make about racism, sexism, homophobia and body image issues, and she makes them by stopping her act dead, pausing to preach to an audience that clearly agrees with everything she’s saying, a moot point at best. Silverman has similar points to make, but she does it organically, within her jokes, not by stepping away from them. She never breaks character or stops going for the laugh; she has the confidence, or maybe it’s indifference, to simply be an entertainer and let us sort out her intentions for ourselves.
One may question whether there’s any danger that people who actually hold the attitudes Silverman lampoons may enjoy the show as well, not realizing what she’s actually saying. I rather doubt it. Her stage persona is clearly a character, an unlikable, pampered, amoral JAP who doesn’t think very much about anything but herself; you’d have to be pretty dense not to get the joke. Anyway, those people aren’t likely to watch because Silverman is a Jew, and Jews killed Christ. And, she happily reports, she’d do it again.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()