I speak of the Apocalypse of Jonah Hill. It’s one that is particularly enjoyable.
Jonah is a person who is so damn entertaining, a lovable mensch who embodies so much and has so much more to give. So much potential. I, too, am an entertainer, though one clothed in much different skin.
I, James Franco, going by looks only, read as the A+ Caucasian—currently defined in the Blue Book of Executive Producers, Casting Directors, and Studios as:
Caucasian, supporting or leading in dramas, Bromance, stoner flicks, Broadway, and weird indie shit: Slightly ethnic in the East Coast way—a space that 70 years ago would have been filled by the likes of Clark Gable or Cary Grant—one further progressed by the earnest and category-defying dedication of full-blooded Italians like 70s-era DeNiro and Pacino, and tough-and/or-sensitive-Jewish-guy performances by Dustin Hoffman.
Early on in his career, however, Jonah was hired as someone to fill Seth Rogen's "Likable Jew with a Fresh Mouth" bucket—a more relatable, more affable, less drug-addled form of John Belushi (or James Belushi, according to Rogen) and his pop-inflected descendant, Chris Farley.
Then it changed, culminating in the commercially-and-critically-lauded locus with The Wolf of Wall Street. It is now apparent that Jonah has traversed a much different road than expected, one that is quickly veering toward Total Greatness.
I have a friend in Palo Alto who is a doctor by trade, one who spent his 30s and 40s as the Grateful Dead’s private physician. He’s Jewish and has Jonah’s (and, in fact, Seth Rogen’s) squat frame. Their same curly hair and sanguine demeanor. Stoned and complacent and selfishly lazy until he’s not, all the time. He is a man who now, as a drug-free crusader for various charities, is, in my mind, a strange barometer of the attractiveness of Jonah Hill as a public persona.
Strangely, this physician—a guy who babysat Jerry Garcia while he drifted through cosmic orbits and listened to “Friend of the Devil” amid thousands upon thousands of people high out of their goddamn mind—has made it very apparent to me over the years that he did not like Seth Rogen’s work. From the highfalutin days of Pineapple Express to our current collaborations on This Is the End, Comedy Central’s roast of me, and the yet-to-be released The Interview.
This same man who hates Seth Rogen with all of his being, a man who is presumably sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, holds Jonah Hill in highest regard. “He comes off very well on those talk shows,” the good doctor once said to me.
The genre that Seth and Judd Apatow arguably created, and to some extent I participated in—The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up—the Bromance-plus genre that includes the crucial ingredient of actual emotional underpinnings so that comedy doesn’t override the integrity of the characters, so that you care about them.
On the other hand, Jonah is the younger version of Seth who rode into the consciousness of the youth market on the magic carpet of Superbad—a vehicle that Seth had actually written for himself, with his ever-present creative partner, Evan Goldberg, back when the two were in junior high. When it finally got green-lit and made, Seth was too old for the role. While on the set of Knocked Up, everyone realized that the fill-in for Seth’s part in Superbad was right under their noses. A quick reading in the producers’ trailer convinced all involved that Jonah was going to kill it as the loudmouthed high school schlub, desperate to get laid.
And kill it he did. Jonah is so fucking good in Superbad that wordsmiths of the likes of Eminem have memorized his every line. The issue of improvisation is a tricky one, and in this case one where Jonah’s contribution to the film cannot be overstated. The discussion of who deserves credit for what line on these kinds of movies always descends into murky areas, because these are living and breathing comedies made with the best people in the business. On all movies—especially movies of this nature, where most scenes are created in front of the camera through spur-of-the-moment discoveries—putting labels on who did what is a fruitless exercise because they are true collective efforts.
Nonetheless, whether Jonah contributed 10 or 90 percent the lines in the version of Superbad that screened in theaters and was beloved by millions, he was turned into a comedy superstar overnight. Jonah has said he can trace it to the precise moment the billboard went up over Canter’s Deli on Fairfax near his house: Before the billboard, he was just a hip nerd hanging out in Canter’s on a given night. After the billboard, he couldn’t eat his matzo ball soup in peace and would end up signing autographs all night.
Recently, in the aftermath of Jonah's becoming a two-time Oscar nominee destined for bona fide Hollywood greatness, I tried to explain to the Seth-hating physician that he should like Seth because he embodies the kind of counterculture figure that the physician admired in the Dead. Seth is someone who makes movies his own way, and successfully—one who doesn’t bow to accepted formulas of filmmaking and, in fact, plowed the way for performers like Jonah as the lovable, straight-talking anti-leading man. The good doctor laughed: “Well, I’m just going by what I see in the movies and on talk shows,” he said. “You know them both personally, so you have a better idea of what they’re really like. I just don’t like that stoner persona of Seth’s.”
Now, what of this need for this abstract concept of “respect” as it pertains to Hollywood? And when we say “respect,” what does it mean? In the world of film—particularly film actors—and celebrity, this need comes in many different variations. In many cases, no matter what the outer shell (slightly ethnic conventional leading man and unconventional crossover from comedy to drama alike), this desire for respect seems to boil down to wanting to be fully dimensional.
What is my motive for writing about Jonah? Is it not to use him as a reflection of myself and, by extension, all actors in this crazy business? To extrapolate even further, all people in this crazy world? In his latest venture, Jonah plays a rapacious sidekick to Leo’s Wall Street wolf. As Jonah said to me, when it meant that The Wolf of Wall Street would delay the filming of our yet-to-be-released film, True Story: “James, you have to let me do [Wolf]. It’s everything I got into acting for: Scorsese, the Pesci character to Leo’s DeNiro. I mean, it’s the best!” And Jonah is damn good in the film. Is it a harbinger of all the great work that he will now do outside of straight comedy? Only time will tell.
Jonah’s true, personal character was belied during my roast on Comedy Central. I may have been the nominal roastee, but I purposefully didn’t watch any of the previous roasts beforehand, in order to remain blissfully ignorant of what was going to happen. I was under the misconception that I alone would be roasted by the other eight members of the panel for several hours—which is why I had no problem asking friends to participate.
Little did I know that everyone would be blasting one another as much as me. I know that Jonah knew this beforehand, and yet he still agreed to do the roast. If he did nothing else for me, it’s his participation in the roast that showed his loyalty and friendship. In many ways, it turned into the roast of Jonah Hill, and he must have known it was coming. All the jokes and criticism that he feared and had avoided in This Is the End came at him full-force at the roast. And he survived.
I think Jonah came out of that experience a better person because he faced his fears, and in such a public way. From this point on his career and life choices can be made from a centered place, because he has accepted who he is: a talented young nebbish who can swing both ways (comedy and drama) better than anyone.