The old expression “they don’t make ’em like that any more” can find a fresh new application with the long-overdue DVD premiere of the 1973 French comedy “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob.” This wild movie achieves the near-impossible of being politically incorrect without being nasty, of overdoing the slapstick without becoming tiresome, and proving that the French are capable of making comedy films which rival and surpass those of the Anglophonic world.
In this film, a manic and bigoted businessman is being driven to his daughter’s wedding in Paris. Through circumstances too complicated to explain (and which would give away too much fun for those unfamiliar with the movie), he rescues an Arab prince who has been kidnaped by terrorists. In order to elude their Islamic pursuers, they disguise themselves as orthodox rabbis from Brooklyn who are being expected by a Jewish enclave in Paris. As luck would have it, the real rabbis show up and no one believes they are who they say they are. The two would-be rabbis, with barely any knowledge of Jewish customs and protocol, need to bluff their way through their predicament while being chased by both the angry Arabs and the businessman’s wedding party.
“The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” is an across-the-board slam at Catholics, Jews, Arabs, blacks, women, law enforcement, clergy, and even airport security. Yet the film does not have a mean bone its body. This is the rare film which exploits stereotypes so ruthlessly that they become funny rather than malicious. When the phony Rabbi Jacob has to lead a congregation in a street dance, what may have been an offensive sequence instead turns into a giddy and wild explosion of movement and mayhem. When the businessman is covered in soot from the backdraft of an automobile and gets mistaken for the father of a black bride, the joke is so outlandish that is cannot possibly be considered as racist.
The film is also thick with the most inventive slapstick since “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Sequences involving a melee in a bubble gum factory, a car which falls apart when it speeds off from a gas station with the nozzle still in the gas tank, a fracas in an airport customs department (which culminates in, of all things, a pie in the face) and a mind boggling chase through the streets of Paris with real rabbis, phony rabbis, terrorists, police and a mad lady dentist have to be seen to be believed.
At the core of the film is the brilliant French comic actor Louis de Funes, who goes through the madness with a mind-boggling level of fury and energy. There has never been a comic performance, before or since, to rival the sheer power of de Funes’ tour de force. Whether reeling off Groucho-worthy insults, engaging in physical comedy of the Danny Kaye style or mugging with the unrestrained outlandishness of Jim Carrey, de Funes is such a force of comic mania that it is easy to understand why he could never top this performance and is not known outside of France for any other film.
I hate to be vague and evasive on the specific details of the film, but in the case of “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” I am loathe to discuss any particular scene in great detail because (1) it would not do justice to the lunacy of the production and (2) it could easily spoil the fun for first-time viewers. Take my word for this — you will not be disappointed in this Gallic gem.