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JOY - **
Directed by Julie Shles. Written by Omer Tadmor.
Hebrew title: Muhrachim L'hiot Sameah. In Hebrew, with English titles. With Sigalit Fuchs, Tal Friedman, Rivka Michaeli, Keren Mor, Yossi Pollack
When an Israeli movie is called Joy be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Ask yourself: What are the chances this title is meant literally, that it is a movie about great happiness? Here's a hint: Next to none.
If a title is meant ironically, you can expect that the irony will be cheap and unsubtle, and that is very much the case in Joy.
The Hebrew title of the film is "Gotta Be Happy," (Muchrachim L'hiot Sameah) - the name of a reality TV show that the heroine of the film, who is named Simha (Hebrew for "joy") participates in. Although the film is occasionally funny, this story of an overweight, underemployed lonely young woman in Tel Aviv and her equally alienated, miserable family is, as you might have guessed, very far from joyful - but equally far from evoking true pathos. The problem is not that it's a mix of comedy and drama, but that the director isn't quite sure if she wants to laugh at, or with, the characters - or to cry with them. Are they meant to be pathetic buffoons or tragic figures? The director can't decide and in the end, as the characters become more and more cartoonish, we lose interest in them.
But Joy does have its virtues. One interesting aspect of the film is that it focuses on a part of society not often shown in the movies, downwardly mobile secular Ashkenazim. Simha (Sigalit Fuchs, who won the Best Actress Ophir Award for her performance) works at an appliance store in the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and looks as if she buys her entire wardrobe there. She dresses in colorful, childish patterns that show a playful style and a sense of humor, but otherwise seems down. Her brutish married boss is having an affair with her but treats her with no affection whatsoever. She seems to have no girlfriends and spends her time brooding in her tiny apartment, which is situated in the shadow of the bus station.
What she broods about is the sudden rift that opened in her life when her parents had a falling out with their friends 22 years ago, just before her bat mitzvah celebration. Apparently her father had been having affairs with several of the women in their circle of friends and her parents abruptly moved out of their home in Herzliya and into a cramped house near the airport. Now they bicker constantly, often sparring over the problems her father (Yossi Pollack) has with urinary incontinence. Yes, you read that right - if you were considering seeing this movie in spite of everything, this plot turn will probably convince you to stay home, and rightly so. His health problem must be some kind of metaphor, about how an oblivious ladies' man finally gets his come-uppance, but the theme is not developed and the film simply presents more than you wanted to know about prostate problems.
Her brother, Gil (Tal Friedman, who gives an outstanding performance in a thankless role), is a high-tech yuppie who suddenly gets fired and, ashamed to tell his wife (Keren Mor), pretends to leave for work every day and sits long hours in the parking garage in his former office building. In one of the film's most moving scenes, he returns to his office and has a meltdown as he takes stock of his life.
The motor that turns the plot is Simha's decision to turn to a reality TV show, Gotta Be Happy. The director apparently wants to score some laughs at the expense of reality TV, but those shows are such an easy target that there's not much humor there. The show will bring her parents back together with the friends they feuded with on their upcoming anniversary and will film the reunion. The smarmy TV producer, who smacks her lips over the gossipy story never seems to wonder how Simha will get the friends to show up for the party. In order to convince them to attend, Simha has to convince these long-lost friends - and us - that the fact that her parents' friends did not show up for her bat mitzvah is the big trauma that set her life, and her parents' lives, on a downward course.
As the movie meanders to its unrealistic conclusion, various questions come up. How is it that Simha, who can't make much money, somehow goes to a health club that seems to have a private pool? Why did the fact that her parents fought with their friends mean that they had to leave a comfortable neighborhood and move to a shack near Lod? Why doesn't Simha's father ever consult a doctor about his urinary problems? What's the symbolism behind the role the diminutive Russian clown who shows up at key moments to console Simha? What's going on with the underdeveloped story about Simha's sister-in-law, who towards the end seems to turn into a bulimic agoraphobic wacko? And when will the gifted actress Keren Mor, who plays this role, get a leading part in a good movie?
The acting is excellent throughout and it's a shame that so much talent was wasted in a film with a premise that doesn't quite work. Reality TV shows lack subtlety and depth, which is what we hope for from a feature film. But the irony of this joyless Joy is that it is as flat as the shows it hopes to lampoon.