Karaoke strikes a chord with Israelis

The movie has touched a chord with many Israelis, who are seeing themselves – or their cousins or old friends – portrayed on screen for the first time. 

 The actors in the couple photo are Sasson Gabay (left) and Rita Shukrun.  (photo credit: DANIEL MILLER)
The actors in the couple photo are Sasson Gabay (left) and Rita Shukrun.
(photo credit: DANIEL MILLER)

In New York, they’re called bridge-and-tunnel people, those unfashionable folks from the outer boroughs who are enthralled with a kind of urban sophistication that doesn’t come naturally to them. 

In Israel, they don’t have such a clear name, but they exist people who live in Tel Aviv suburbs and are afraid they are missing out on the glittering fun of the big city. It is these people who are at the center of Moshe Rosenthal’s debut feature film, Karaoke, which opens in theaters around Israel on September 29.

The movie, which won the Ophir Awards last week for its leading actor and actress, Sasson Gabay and Rita Shukrun, has touched a chord with many Israelis, who are seeing themselves – or their cousins or old friends – portrayed on screen for the first time. 

In Israel, there tends to be dramatic movies that deal with war, politics and difficult family situations, and slapstick comedies. But there are few movies about the actual lives of ordinary people and even fewer lightly comic films. Karaoke steps into that void with this engaging comedy.

The movie plot

Actor pictured is Lior Ashkenazi. (credit: HADAS PARUSH)Actor pictured is Lior Ashkenazi. (credit: HADAS PARUSH)

Meir (Gabay) and Tova (Shukrun) are a Mizrahi couple in their 60s who live in a huge, new high-rise in Holon with a marble lobby that looks like it was modeled after Trump Tower. They aren’t actually wealthy, though: Meir is a teacher on sabbatical and Tova owns a boutique at a local mall (which, oddly, seems to take up very little of her time). The new, rather soulless building where they live has a view of half a dozen other buildings just like it. 

The couple are an interesting mixture, both status-seeking and down to earth. Tova is the kind of woman who asks you what your rent is and why you aren’t married a minute after she meets you, then offers heartfelt, unsolicited advice on how you can get a cheaper place and meet someone. Although her blue spike heels with alligator decorations might not be your idea of elegance, they are hers. She is living her dream – sort of. She wants something more out of life, although she isn’t sure what that is. 

Meir is more discontented. He barely talks, even at the dinners where his daughters come to visit and Tova dismisses what he has to say. You can imagine that she would have been happier with a husband who wasn’t as quiet and reserved as Meir and he seems to sense this.

But they have worked things out – until a new neighbor moves into their building: Itzik Marciano (Lior Ashkenazi). He is charming, with an unctuous seductiveness, and invites them to his penthouse apartment to make amends for a minor neighborly infraction. Speaking of his work as a modeling agent and his life in Miami, he beguiles them. 

Itzik’s house guest is a beautiful trans woman from Turkey – and although they don’t know quite what to make of her, they are dazzled. They start spending time with their new neighbor, both separately and at the karaoke parties, he holds for the models and wannabes he represents. Itzik even convinces Meir that he could be a regular-guy model so he transforms his rumpled appearance and colors his hair, which Tova encourages. In increasingly similar ways, the two become infatuated with Itzik, not realizing that they are not the only neighbors he is seducing.

The nuances of their social-climbing adventure will likely be lost on audiences outside of Israel, but the basic feeling of a long-married couple longing for something to shake up their staid life is universal. 

The more the movie plays on their infatuation for comedy, the better it works, but some of the drama falls a little flat. The scene where they have the inevitable big fight, where their simmering resentments boil over, is a moment we have seen in so many films. 

Tolstoy famously said that all happy families are alike, but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But the famed author did not live to watch the movies and television shows of the past 50 years. If he had, he would likely have recognized some pretty clear patterns of on-screen unhappiness. 

The moment passes quickly, though, and the well-written, well-plotted screenplay lets us have fun again, laughing at Meir and Tova gently, recognizing some of our own impulses in them and celebrating their happier moments.

The movie review

A movie like this rises and falls on the quality of the actors – and the main trio is wonderful and perfectly cast. Rita Shukrun makes Tova, who could have been a caricature, into a sensual and appealing woman, if a sometimes silly one. Shukrun has played the drab Moroccan mother so many times that it was a pleasure to see her get to be a more vital character here. 

Gabay is one of Israel’s most celebrated actors, who won his fourth Ophir Award for this film, and deservedly so. Meir isn’t an easy part to play, just as Tova isn’t: It’s hard to make people who are so easily impressed by a little flash into fully rounded characters. But Gabay, who is best known for his role in The Band’s Visit (which he reprised in the Tony-Award-winning Broadway version of the play), pulls it off, and we identify with Meir and feel for him when he is disappointed. 

Ashkenazi, one of Israel’s finest and most playful leading men, easily convinces us that he could mesmerize this couple. A gifted mimic who is known for his impressions on the Wonderful Country comedy show as well as his movie roles in such films as Walk on Water, Late Marriage and Footnote, he is totally believable as the guy everyone wants to get close to – and he doesn’t betray the faintest bit of self-doubt.

There have been many movies where a mysterious stranger comes along and seduces everyone – notably Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills – and now it’s fun to watch this plot play out near Tel Aviv, especially with a cast like this.