By Elias Savada.
With all the unrest in the Middle East, it seems that one of the few places where Israelis can gather these days for a good laugh would be at the cinema. Yet, despite the best efforts of its cast, Hunting Elephants is a tame comedic excursion into a flimsy world of social lechery and geriatric dysfunction, albeit one that garnered seven Israeli Film Academy Awards nominations. (It ultimately lost out in all categories, either to the marvelous horror pic Big Bad Wolves  or the dramatic thriller Bethlehem .)
Writer-director Reshef Levi (Lost Islands, 2008), who shares the screenplay credit with his late brother Regev Levi, takes a lame variation of the gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight and plops it on a formulaic bank heist platform. It’s a poor man’s version of the marvelous 1979 Martin Brest comedy Going in Style, with a remake in the works starring Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin. While most of my fellow Jewish senior citizens (Yes, I just applied for Medicare. Gulp.) might enjoy this multi-generational sit-com, most of the jokes fall flat. I did like one, involving Coca-Cola’s secret ingredients, but when you find yourself feeling grumpy in the end, there’s more than just a notion of misguided writing, directing, and acting afoot. I suspect the underlying political satire just doesn’t travel well outside of home crowd, where the film had its premiere at the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival. It screened at various Jewish outings since, and is finally getting a U.S. release via XLrator Media, although the publicity machine is pushing the lower-billed co-star Patrick Stewart (the only non-Hebrew speaking member of the cast) to the forefront.
The film has a nice liftoff when the sped-up version of that idiotic tune “Banana Phone” (think Alvin and the Chipmunks performing under the direction of crazed bandleader Spike Jones) is heard over the opening credits. And it bookends with Peggy Lee warbling “Ain’t We Got Fun,” nearly two hours later, but there’s a vacuous middle (I didn’t care for the pacing) that aches for less than what’s there.
Slender and timid Jonathan (Gil Blank), a smart-beyond-his-12-years student, is the brunt of an overweight bully at his school. He dotes on his affectionate bear-sized father (Zvika Hadar), a dutiful security contractor working on a too-ambitious alarm system at a bank managed by the sleazy Dedi (Moshe Ivgy). When dad suffers a fatal heart attack while working overtime, his stressed-out widow, Dorit (Yael Abecassis) – still attractive (and over-worked and in-need-of-love) at 40 – is told, all too quickly in the fantasy bureaucratic society that infuses the film, that there’s no pension or insurance benefits she’ll be receiving. She’s got no choice but to seek out her husband’s crusty, cantankerous father, Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai, ok here, but really good in producer Ehud Bleuberg’s 2007 Oscar-nominated feature The Band’s Visit), long estranged from his son’s family. He lives with his comatose wife and other old friends, including the vision-challenged Nick (Moni Moshonov) at a retirement home. The forced family reconciliation offers the boy a look-see at how randy old men (and women) can be, as the old farts ogle a vivacious nurse (Meirav Koperberg) for any centimeter of her ample cleavage upon which the director of photography (Yaron Scharf) can provide adequate zoom (un)coverage.
Toss in Lord Michael Simpson (Patrick Stewart), a bow-tied Brit of dubious lineage and brother of the comatose grandmother. He’s a vainglorious, financially-strapped ham of an actor with a checkered career. Yup, that’s him as a campy Darth Vader in a corny London production of a Star Wars-Shakespeare mash-up entitled Hamlet: Revenge of the Siths. Seems everyone thinks he owns a family mansion in Jerusalem, coming from one of the “richest families in England,” Dorit believes. Unfortunately, she never heard the story about Lord Michael’s father disowning him for taking up a career in the theatre. Meanwhile Dedi courts Dorit and the totally amateur gang sets about working out the kinks in their robbery scenario.
Aside from occasional moments of whimsical fantasy, the film is told in a straight forward, yet hardly enlightening manner. In a handful of places Levi sprinkles a faux documentary sheen involving mostly fake but sometimes a real person (journalist and politician Ofer Shelah) offering better-late-than-never commentary. Other than to fill in holes in the dreary script, these add nothing to the already sloppy production.
Hunting Elephants tries to be funny. Eh. It tries to mend the broken fabric between a restless, aging man and his 12-year-old grandson. It partially succeeds. And it stumbles when dealing with a preposterous bank robbery that feels like it was dreamt up by a bunch of aging circus clowns (they’re just missing the face paint) armed with a walker, a cane, and an umbrella.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.