Ferne Pearlstein’s “The Last Laugh” is a rather safe and genteel documentary about the limits of humor (especially as they pertain to the Holocaust), but it opens with a subtly provocative sequence of events that’s hard to shake. Rob Reiner, but one of the film’s many different talking heads, tells a very benign joke about two Jews who tried to kill Hitler. Gilbert Gottfried pops up to get in on the action. Then we cut to Mel Brooks — perhaps the single most significant figure in permitting modern Jews to make light of their darkness — and he performs some light Hitler shtick, culminating in a shoutout to “The guy who made me money.”
Finally, and seamlessly, the film cuts to survivor and educator Renee Firestone, introducing the nonagenarian just as she launches into a bit about Dr. Josef Mengele inspecting some of the young women on whom he was hoping to experiment. Speaking with the casual buoyancy of someone retelling a silly childhood story, Firestone goes on to say how Mengele — perhaps the single most feared man to ever wear a Nazi uniform — peered inside her mouth and deadpanned: “If you survive this war, you really ought to have your tonsils removed.” It’s the first real laugh of the movie, but it’s most definitely not a joke.
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It would be an incredible moment in any context, but it’s all the more so here because of how densely it contains all of the questions that Pearlstein’s documentary will dance around for the rest of its running time. Why is it funny to hear this woman talk about her encounter with one of history’s greatest monsters, and what good does that kind of humor do for us? Is there a moral difference between making fun of perpetrators and laughing with victims? Where do we draw the line about what we’re allowed to mock? When does too soon become long enough and how soon is now?
A film that starts as a look at the value of laughter and eventually dissolves into a celebration of comics (“They’re the conscience of the people,” we’re told), “The Last Laugh” uses a specific strain of Jewish humor as a lens through which to examine why humor can be so helpful. Leaning heavily on clips from cultural landmarks that range from “The Producers” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and all manner of things in between, Pearlstein does an entertaining job of tracing how we got from “Hitler on Ice” to “Life Is Beautiful.”
The snippets of footage are well-chosen and enhanced by their context (“The Producers” hasn’t been this funny since before Mel Brooks took it to Broadway), though Pearlstein is on more secure footing when addressing Holocaust jokes than she is when attempting to parlay her findings to include the goys — it’s not that her commentary doesn’t apply beyond the Jewish people, only that the evidence she uses to invoke post-war tragedies like 9/11 is too broad and familiar to carry the same weight (if only that “SNL” clip of Lorne Michaels and Rudy Giuliani could be banished to the purgatory where Jerry Lewis keeps “The Day the Down Cried”).
Specificity is the film’s strong suit, and “The Last Laugh” is at its best when eschewing its gaggle of celebrity interview subjects in favor of sticking with Firestone as she reckons with their comedy. It’s far more interesting to watch a survivor try to make sense of Ricky Gervais than it is to listen to Larry Charles talk about “Borat,” and Pearlstein doesn’t shy away from allowing her featured subject to do things that might complicate the documentary’s conclusions (one particularly sobering bit follows Firestone as reconnects with some less humorously inclined survivors).
On the other hand, it’s worth the price of admission just to hear Mel Brooks emphatically declare “Life Is Beautiful” to be the worst movie ever made — it’s frustrating that the doc can’t commits to being either an interview-driven throwaway or a dedicated character story, but moments like that make it easy to forgive Pearlstein for wanting to split the difference. And muddled or not, even Jews who have been making Holocaust jokes their entire lives will appreciate how “The Last Laugh” between parses between why some of them are funny, and others still hit too close to home. As Reiner puts it, “The Holocaust is not funny, but survival — what it takes to survive — there can be humor in that.”
“The Last Laugh” is now in theaters.