The Jerusalem Post got an early look at Avi Nesher’s latest movie, The Monkey House, starring Adir Miller, at a sneak preview on Tuesday night and the movie is likely to be a huge hit when it is released in Israel in late September. It’s a delightful, sophisticated mixture of a literary mystery, a witty comedy and a moving character study of two lost souls who make a connection.
The movie has already been acquired for worldwide distribution by Fandango, a prestigious Italian entertainment company known for working with auteurs such as Paolo Sorrentino and Nanni Moretti. This is the first time Fandango has chosen to distribute an Israeli film and it rarely acquires films it did not produce itself. The Monkey House will be shown around the world at festivals ahead of its international release.
In addition to the deal with Fandango, The Monkey House has another feather in its cap: Universal chose to finance much of the film’s soundtrack, and will distribute the soundtrack when the movie is released. The score is by Avner Dorman, one of Israel’s most acclaimed classical composers, and it also features ‘80s pop tunes and Arabic folk-rock.
The central figure in the movie is Amitay Kariv, a forgotten novelist played by Adir Miller, who demonstrates again that while he is known for being Israel’s most popular stand-up comedian, he has soul and depth in dramatic parts. This is the fourth time he has acted in one of Nesher’s movies and it rivals his Ophir Award-winning turn as the mysterious Holocaust survivor in the 2010 film, The Matchmaker.
Set in the 1980s, the movie follows Amitay, whose books are out of print and who lives near the monkey park from which the movie gets its name. He ekes out a living writing pulp fiction, consumed with envy for his more celebrated colleagues.
A former kibbutznik, he pines for Tamar (Shani Cohen), whom he has loved since they were children, but who married another man. After her husband dies, he realizes he has a chance to win her back, and the only way he can think of doing that is by burnishing his faded literary reputation. But that seems like an impossible task, since his name is nothing more than a punchline to the few who remember it.
But then Amitay gets an idea: to hire an actress to impersonate a grad student who is writing a book about him. After he interviews a few pallid literature students, he meets Margo (Suzanna Papian), a young woman who is the antithesis of everything he stands for. She never reads and has a vague plan to go to Hollywood. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, she bluffs her way through an interview in which she answers the way she imagines a literary scholar would.
But Amitay has figured out that what he needs is actually an actress who thinks for herself and knows how to make an impression. What Margo needs, although she doesn’t realize it, is to start taking herself seriously. In a sequence reminiscent of a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which Jimmy Stewart has Kim Novak made over to look like a woman he loved, Amitay oversees Margo’s transformation into a sober-looking researcher. And as she learns to walk the walk, she starts to see all the ways in which she has been lying to herself.
Tamar is drawn back into Amitay’s life by the scam, and being near her helps make him reexamine his own life and choices. At the same time, another character is added to the mix, Amir (Ala Dakka), an Israeli living in Italy who is making a documentary about Israeli writers. When he and Margo meet – in her guise as researcher Gal Shenhar –there is an immediate click between them.
AND THEN the story really gets complicated. Nesher, speaking before the screening on Tuesday, reiterated his often-expressed belief that the best stories are real and said that The Monkey House is based on a true story, although he declined to reveal which writer’s life inspired it.
The story plays out in unexpected ways, anchored by dazzling performances by the leads. Miller is convincing as a man who has spent his life blaming others when he is his worst enemy. Amitay is a very familiar type in literary circles, but even if you don’t know any writers, you have met people like him and you may recognize a little bit of him in yourself.
Papian, an actress who has appeared in a number of television shows, becomes a star in her first leading role. It’s something of a tradition for Nesher to anoint new actresses in his movies: Neta Garty, Liraz Charchi, Ania Bukstein and Joy Rieger, who are now among Israel’s top leading ladies, were all more or less unknown until Nesher cast them in some of his previous films. Now it’s Papian’s turn to take center stage and she is perfect as both the bimbo and the brainy student, with the presence and comic timing is reminiscent of such screen greats as Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy.
Nesher has often used stand-ups such as Miller in his movies and Shani Cohen, best known as an ensemble member on the comedy show, Eretz Nehederet, gives a strong, sexy performance and you can believe a man would be obsessed with her for decades. Ala Dakka, who appeared in Nesher’s last film, Image of Victory, as well as Fauda, is very appealing as a sexy nerd.
Nesher, one of Israel’s leading filmmakers, started his career with the classic, The Troupe (Ha Lahaka), in the late ‘70s, and is still doing work that ranks among his best. That’s saying something when his movies include Turn Left at the End of the World, Rage and Glory and The Matchmaker. His movies examine aspects of Israeli life with a universal appeal and it was a pleasure to get an early look at The Monkey House, which has complexity and wit reminiscent of a Billy Wilder movie.