A refreshing comedy-drama about ordinary Israelis: 'Perfect Strangers'

The Israeli film 'Perfect Strangers' is about several couples at a dinner party who agree to read aloud all their texts and play all their conversations on speakerphone.

A scene from ‘Perfect Strangers’ (photo credit: OFER YANIV)
A scene from ‘Perfect Strangers’
(photo credit: OFER YANIV)

When you watch Israeli movies and television series, you will see plenty of Mossad agents and counterterrorism commandos, haredi families and comedians getting into all kinds of silly situations. What you won’t see much of are middle-class, secular Israelis, the kinds of people who live in the suburbs and like to barbecue, ordinary people who are much like their counterparts around the world. But it is just these kinds of Israelis who are the focus of Lior Ashkenazi’s comedy-drama of manners, Perfect Strangers, and it is refreshing to see.

The Israeli Perfect Strangers is the latest adaptation of a 2016 Italian film of the same name about several couples at a dinner party who agree – for the duration of the meal – to read aloud all the texts they receive and play all their conversations on speakerphone, with predictably and dramatically disastrous results. This story has already been remade in over a dozen versions all over the world and is also a play, a Hebrew version of which is currently at Habima. Since Israelis are as attached to their phones as anyone – perhaps even more so – this Israeli reworking makes sense, and it’s an entertaining and well-made movie from start to finish.

Moran Atias and Yossi Marshek play the couple holding the dinner party for their childhood friends. They are the best off of the group: he a plastic surgeon and she an indulgent mother to their computer-nerd son. Their friends are a contractor and his wife (Hanan Savyon and Rotem Abuhab), a store owner and his new, younger girlfriend (Guy Amir and Shira Naor), and a sports coach who is still single (Avi Grainik). Everyone, it turns out, has something to hide, both from their partners and the rest of the group and as the night wears on, tempers fray and long-buried grudges rise to the surface.

There is no way to go into more detail about the plot without revealing spoilers and ruining the suspense. But the point of the movie is that everyone has something to hide and that our willingness not to look too hard into the dark corners of other people’s lives is what keeps us together.

Before the smartphone era, it was much easier to look the other way. But as the story shows, a smartphone can function as a kind of grenade that destroys everything around it. Since they contain so much information, they have the power to damage the polite fictions we hide behind, and what is on them can cause irreparable damage to our relationships.

Lior Ashkenazi in 'Footnote.' (credit: RAN MENDELSON)Lior Ashkenazi in 'Footnote.' (credit: RAN MENDELSON)

With a long career as one of Israel’s most successful leading men – Ashkenazi has won three Ophir Awards, and has starred in such films and television series as Footnote, Walk on Water, Big Bad Wolves, Late Marriage and Valley of Tears – it’s not surprising that in his directorial debut, he works well with actors.

Ashkenazi has assembled a cast of some of Israel’s most entertaining performers, many of whom are better known for comedy than drama, but all give polished and believable performances. Amir and Savyon are famous for their television comedy and two very successful farces, Maktub and Forgiveness. They are not the most obvious choices to play extremely dramatic roles, but they rise to the challenge, as does Abuhab, an actress also best known for comedy. This is a true ensemble film and you believe the characters are old friends.

Israeli touches have been added to the story deftly. The surgeon is obsessed with his hi-tech barbecue apparatus, which sends texts to let him know when it’s hot enough to start grilling meat.

This same character is haunted with guilt over the feeling that a friend of his was killed in the army because of something he did. His wife frets over what her son will do in the military when he is drafted, and so on. Each version of Perfect Strangers adds local color, which heightens the universal aspects of the story. Your attention will never wander as you watch the film, and when it is over you may find your eyes straying to your partner’s phone – or you may decide to delete your own search history.