Yossi, the latest from Eytan Fox, a director with "heart" problems

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Ohad Knoller stars as the title character.
  • Ohad Knoller stars as the title character.
A heart surgeon (Ohad Knoller) is so committed to his career that it seems unhealthy. Regularly taking extra shifts, napping at the hospital because he can't sleep at home, he's using work to fill a void in his life; anyone can see that. His colleagues want to help him but don't know how; he's so stoic that no one can tell exactly what his problem is. A receptionist invites him to a play but doesn't want to scare him off by calling it a date. A fellow doctor, a confident jock type, tells him he needs to get laid and pats him on the back.

Maybe that's the answer, he thinks; the immediacy of the act might reawaken him to himself. The surgeon uses the Internet to find random sex. (The arrangement is a perfect fit for his personality: practical, anonymous . . . ) He visits the apartment of his match, a physically fit man a few years his junior. Nothing comes of it. The younger man takes offense that the surgeon had introduced himself with a years-old picture, which promised a skinnier, more fashionable, and happier-looking man.

He's disappointed by the dour teddy bear who showed up. The surgeon doesn't try to argue; he knows he's in the wrong. And though he'd rather not admit it, in this rejection he's found the wake-up call he needed. Even this stranger, looking only for sex and unimpressed by the surgeon's noble work ethic, found his unhappiness too thick to ignore. There's something gravely wrong with him.

The scenes leading up to this revelation in Yossi, a new Israeli drama that opens Friday at the Landmark Century, are subtly and compassionately realized. The movie feels plotless in the best sense, slowly introducing us to the characters so that we think of them as peers and look for their better natures. Director Eytan Fox clearly likes these people, even the boorish doctor and the callow stranger. He appreciates their honesty, their verboseness, and their comfort in discussing sex. He also understands that particular need to use work as a psychological crutch (which contemporary workplaces are rather good at exploiting) and presents it with knowing detail. And as in Fox's other movies, the actors playing longtime friends really seem to know each other intimately—there's an inviting quality to the scenes of them chewing the fat.

This unforced naturalism brings a sense of authority to Fox's depictions of contemporary Tel Aviv and gay culture in general—I appreciate his work for the insights it provides me about both. The way that the stranger rejects Yossi, the surgeon, feels justified and not overly cruel. Fox acknowledges that different communities establish different codes of sexual conduct, and he doesn't try to judge them. (Perhaps this perspective comes from his relative distance from his subjects. Fox was born in 1964 but regularly deals with characters about ten years younger than himself.) Instead he observes how the characters' sexual mores reflect their politics and their orientation within a larger culture. There's an admirable seriousness to this approach—even the uninhibited sex talk conveys the director's maturity.

And yet I haven't seen a film by Fox I'd call uniformly good. The movies of his to receive wide release in the United States—Yossi & Jagger, Walk on Water, The Bubble, and now Yossi—follow the same unsatisfying pattern. In each, Fox introduces a group of likably recognizable human beings, lets them hang out, then shoves them into a contrived melodrama in the final act. In The Bubble, for instance, a postcollegiate Jewish leftist (also played by Knoller) falls in love with a Palestinian laborer who's living in Israel illegally. Some of his friends accept this relationship only begrudgingly, but on the whole his circle adjusts to make his boyfriend feel welcome. Romance, the film asserts, may open the door to a more enlightened society. But then an Israeli military maneuver kills members of the lover's family. The sensitive, apolitical Palestinian becomes radicalized in what seems like a few hours and blows himself up in downtown Tel Aviv; among the casualties are his boyfriend's roommate.

Setting aside the implausibility of these events, what stands out most about the end of The Bubble is how gratingly it clashes with the rest of the film. Fox doesn't have much of a knack for narrative urgency—Walk on Water demonstrates that he can't even make a simple car chase seem interesting—and the would-be shock of the conclusion feels like an empty rhetorical gesture. It's as though Fox doesn't trust his own observations (about the insularity of Tel Aviv youth culture and the pull of tribal prejudices) and feels that only a grandstanding gesture will get his point across.

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Of the four films of his I've seen, Yossi is the first one without a melodramatic, out-of-left-field death scene—this may explain why I like it the most of the four. Yet its final act still feels undeserved. (If you want to be surprised by the movie, I'd recommend that you stop reading here.) After his boss persuades him to take a vacation, Yossi meets a handsome younger man at a resort. The younger man takes a liking to him for reasons that are never made clear—as in any bad Hollywood rom-com, true love is defined as a narcissistic fantasy of a beautiful, uncomplicated person who treats you like royalty. (Fox tries to suggest a sense of pathos in Yossi's attraction by having him carry around a copy of Death in Venice, but the allusion, never really expounded on, just feels pretentious.) Tying things up even more neatly, the young catch is a military reservist who's about the same age as Yossi's true love was when he was killed in combat.

As in The Bubble, the ending practically cancels out Fox's hard work in exposing human complexity. Yet his better instincts shine through the bad ones. Fox's thematic statements may be overdetermined, but they're embarrassing as only good intentions can be. It's not enough for Fox to document the evolving relationship between gays and straights in the Israeli middle class; he needs everyone to know that this is important. The world needs minor artists, the critic Robert Warshow once wrote, and Fox certainly fills that need, advancing a personal, humane sensibility through insights as well as blunders.

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