More tragic than comic

Maya Kenig’s comedy-drama ‘Off-White Lies’ fudges the (emotional) truth.

“Off-White Lies” 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
“Off-White Lies” 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Comedy in Israeli films is usually quite broad. For many years, there was a sharp distinction between so-called seretei bourekas – silly comedies filled with slapstick and schtick – and more serious drama. Naturally, the more talented filmmakers tended to gravitate toward the more somber end of the spectrum.
During the past decade, when Israeli films have become higher quality all around, there have been a few, such as The Band’s Visit, Footnote and The Matchmaker, which have gently mixed a few laughs in with a more serious narrative. The more lowbrow fare has mostly moved to television. What we haven’t had much yet are sophisticated comedies that play off Israeli reality (which, to be honest, is generally no laughing matter).
Maya Kenig’s Off-White Lies, her debut feature, is a likable comedy-drama that aims to find a balance between laughs and tears. It has appealing actors and an interesting situation, but it doesn’t quite come together. Its political incorrectness – it focuses on a father and daughter who use the security situation to run a scam – is refreshing, but the basic plot is simply so sad, that much of the humor misses its target.
Off-White Lies stars Gur Bentwich – who won the Best Actor Award at the 2011 Jerusalem Film Festival – as Shaul, a wannabe inventor who lives with whoever happens to be his current girlfriend. It opens in 2006, when Libby (Elya Inbar), Shaul’s 13-year-old daughter, arrives from the US. She hasn’t seen him in years and has grown up in America with her mother and stepfather. But Libby has been acting out lately, and her mother has decided it’s Shaul’s turn to raise her. For Libby, it seems like a lark. She doesn’t seem as upset as you might think a girl would be after she has been sent away from the only home she has ever known.
In any case, she and Shaul have to deal with some very pressing problems: His recent girlfriend has just kicked him out, and when they arrive at his friend’s house in the North, where Shaul had hoped they could stay, the Second Lebanon War breaks out. They take refuge in a shelter, and then Shaul hears that families around the country are opening their homes to people fleeing the North. A tragedy for Israel turns out to be the perfect opportunity for Shaul to secure comfortable, free accommodations for Libby and himself.
They move into a house owned by a very wealthy family, the Reichmanns, in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. Just like in those movies where people pretend to married in order to secure a green card for one of them, Shaul and Libby invent an elaborate shared past so they will seem to be a typical family. They bond over this scam and become part of the household. The lady of the house, Helit (Salit Achimiriam), is at first rather forbidding but then becomes maternal to Libby and flirtatious with Shaul. There’s an echo of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, where Nick Nolte, playing a homeless bum, is taken in by a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler) and proceeds to make passes at all the women in the house.
Gideon (Tzahi Grad), Helit’s taciturn husband, is soon interested in investing in Shaul’s latest invention, the Smokeless, a device that absorbs second-hand cigarette smoke. And Libby finds herself becoming friendly with their son, Yuval (Arad Yeni), a budding musician and reluctant soldier.
That’s the basic story, but as witty and interesting as it may sound, it’s curiously uninvolving. The problem is that while a father like this may sound like a lovable kook, in real life this kind of person is an irresponsible deadbeat, and most of us know that all too well. A film about a girl whose mother ships her off to this kind of father has to be more tragic than comic. The jokes and the sadness coexist here, but uneasily.
Still, the performances, especially by Bentwich and Inbar, are wonderful. And Kenig is clearly a director to watch.