“JEWTOPIA,” the new comedic film directed by co-writer Bryan Fogel and based on the long-running theatrical hit, appeals to a much wider audience than the title suggests, according to producer Courtney Mizel.
Mizel feels the movie version of the off-Broadway play penned by Fogel and writing partner Sam Wolfson demonstrates that Jewish stereotypes describe non-Jewish families as well.
“A strong mother figure; the pressure for kids to succeed; marrying within one’s own religion; the sense of duty and obligation — these characteristics exist in countless cultures,” she says from Los Angeles.
For example, you don’t have to be Jewish to identify with those predictable outbursts between mother and daughter.
Cast member Rita Wilson, whose heritage is Greek, related easily with the comedy’s Jewish context because it resonated with her own upbringing.
The ensemble cast, which agreed to work for scale, includes formidable Hollywood celebs Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tom Arnold, Jon Lovitz, Camryn Manheim, Joel David Moore, Ivan Sergei, Wendie Malick, Nicolette Sheridan, Jamie Lynn Sigler, Peter Stormare and Phil Rosenthal.
While the Jewish actors had an insider’s edge, their non-Jewish colleagues “appreciated the humor and effortlessly integrated it into their characters,” says Mizel, who put in 14- to 16-hour days during production.
“Most of these actors can earn more in a single TV appearance than they did in this entire film,” she laughs. “But they loved the screenplay. We also promised them a good time.” The cast was not disappointed.
THE plot of “Jewtopia” is reminiscent of a basic Shakespearean comedy. Christian O’Connell (Sergei) falls in love with Alison Marks (Hewitt), who is Jewish and the daughter of a rabbi.
Afraid of losing Alison, Christian tells her his name is Ari Rosenberg and that he is Jewish — both lies.
Christian consults his Jewish friend Adam Lipschitz (Moore) about how to “act Jewish.”
But Adam is having his own problems. His fiancé (Sigler) is pushing him toward a mental breakdown as their wedding approaches.
While it’s possible to interpret “Jewtopia” on a more serious level — lying to the woman of your dreams, assimilation, an abundance of stereotypes — Mizel insists the film “is not intended to be a deep social comedy.
“It’s supposed to be funny, and it is funny. If people expect an examination of serious issues, they won’t find it. ‘Jewtopia’ is not a commentary on Judaism or Christianity.
“Audiences are looking to laugh about something. How you go into ‘Jewtopia’ determines your reaction.”
LONG ago and right here in Denver, Mizel and Fogel were in the same Hebrew school and confirmation class at BMH-BJ. They lost touch but reconnected after Mizel moved to LA in 1995. “We would see each other at parties and social events and say hello,” she says.
“Then I read an article announcing that Bryan was doing ‘Jewtopia’ on Broadway.
“I was going to New York anyway and went to see it with a friend. I was blown away.” Mizel and Fogel kept up on their career trajectories via Facebook and emails.
Eventually, Fogel requested that Mizel produce the LA stage production of “Jewtopia.” For bitterly ironic reasons, the timing was perfect.
“I was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer,” says Mizel, who welcomes the opportunity to discuss her experience.
“The cancer had affected my lymph nodes. I had a mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy and radiation.”
The cancer hit her like a bolt of lightning. There was no family history. She simply discovered a lump in the shower.
“It was scary,” admits Mizel, a peer support volunteer for Shasheret and Imerman Angels and a fundraiser for breast cancer awareness.
“When bad things happen I’m the type of person who says, ‘Here’s the problem, now what’s the solution?’ ”
In her case, Fogel’s play was an excellent release.
“I had just finished my last treatment when I worked on the LA production of ‘Jewtopia.’”
A while later, Fogel asked Mizel to read his screenplay to gauge her interest in the movie.
Mizel, who attended the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California and produced the feature-length “Tortilla Heaven” starring George Lopez in 2008, said yes.
“It’s true that a lot of theater productions don’t translate well into film,” Mizel says. “But Bryan and Sam used the theatrical model to inspire the movie. They brought their characters to three-dimensional life.”
For Mizel, producing responsibilities entail much more than attracting investors and appearing as a credit blip fading to black.
“As the producer for a low-budget, independent production, I did everything from generating income to casting to scouting for locations to being on set every day. I was the first person to arrive, and the last person to leave.”
But it didn’t stop when Fogel said, “Wrap.”
“My post-production jobs encompass editing, distribution and marketing,” she says. “This has been my full-time project for almost three years.”
MIZEL’S daughters Zoe Faith, 6, and Isabella Grace, 5, made their film debut in “Jewtopia.” Although Mizel is given every chance to gloat, she prefers talking about the opportunity to spend time with her daughters on the set.
“I would leave the house around 4:30 or 5 a.m. and not return home until 10 p.m.,” says Mizel, who is divorced.
“I saw them first thing in the morning, and I also brought them to the set whenever possible.
“I wanted them to understand what Mommy does for a living.”
A specific scene in “Jewtopia” called for two flower girls. “It was a wedding scene,” Mizel says. “You always have to cut scenes in films, but I said they couldn’t cut my children because I wanted them near me.”
During the filming, Isabella was only four and Zoe was five. Most children their age can’t sit still under the best of circumstances.
“Once they got on set they loved it,” Mizel says. They didn’t even complain when the cinematographer made them stay two extra hours to get precise measurements for the other actors.
“Now my daughters keep asking me to make a movie for kids so all their friends can watch it,” she laughs.
Mizel, who estimates that she’ll be “riding the waves of ‘Jewtopia’ for six more months,” is asked about future projects.
“I do not know,” she says thoughtfully. “‘Jewtopia’ was a long-time commitment, and you have to be passionate in order to focus so much time and energy on one project.
“I do know I want to spend lots of time with my kids. Then I’ll see what I’d like to do next.”
“Jewtopia” is currently playing at AMC Cherry Creek 8.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News