Hunting Elephants (Latzoud Pilim): Palm Springs Review

"Hunting Elephants"
A funny, if old-fashioned, comedy that's unevenly executed.

Israeli director and comic Reshef Levi assembles a cast of blue-rinse stars, including Sasson Gabai, Moni Moshonov and Patrick Stewart, for this crowd-pleasing caper.

Two shady Israelis living in an old people’s home plan to rob a bank with the help of one of their precocious if estranged grandchildren and a penniless English lord in Reshef Levi’s crowd-pleaser Hunting Elephants, a comedy caper full of incorrigible old geezers that’s as broad as barn door.

Writer-director Levi, also a stand-up comedian, supplies some terrific one-liners and lines up a stellar cast that includes local greats Sasson Gabai (The Band’s Visit) and Moni Moshonov (Two Lovers, We Own the Night) as well as Patrick Stewart (the X-Men and Star Trek films) in an avuncular and stereotypically British role originally conceived for John Cleese. Though it contains some nice twists, the story is largely predictable and old-fashioned in ways both good (the characters’ unlikely come-what-may camaraderie) and bad (misogyny and machismo abound). A box-office hit at home, Hunting Elephants is currently making the rounds of both regional and Jewish events such as the Palm Springs Film Festival, where it was an audience hit.

Interestingly enough for a film with so many familiar names, the film’s true protagonist has not a single gray hair on his head and is a total unknown: Gil Blank plays Jonathan, an intellectually gifted if socially awkward 12-year-old who witnesses his security-guard father, Daniel (Zvika Hadar), die at work after he’s conveniently explained the bank’s security system and codes to his son.

In the tradition of many caper films, the death of a character sets in motion a complex plot and provides perfunctory motivation for a lot of the action but causes barely an emotional ripple in the life of those who remain behind. Instead, Jonathan’s dumped at the home where his estranged grandfather, Eliyahu (Gabai), lives so the latter can babysit the child who’s got no friends, while Jonathan’s hard-working but poor mother, Dorit (Yael Abecassis), tries to make amends with her late husband’s sleazebag employer (Moshe Ivgy), who refuses to pay out any insurance money, leaving them in the lurch financially.

Eliyahu’s comatose other half is in the “coma room” of the home where he and his best friend, Nick (Moshonov), also live, and together with Lord Michael Simpson (Stewart), the aristocratic brother of Eliyahu’s British wife, and young Jonathan, they decide to rob the bank "that killed Daniel." All the characters need money, including Lord Simpson, a bankrupt English actor who’s first seen treading the boards in a totally illegal staging of a toe-curling production called Hamlet, Revenge of the Sith.

After a lengthy introduction, the film’s first major setpiece is the obligatory montage sequence in which the characters carefully plan the robbery, intercut with footage of them actually inside the bank. From this point on, the rhythm picks up and Levi and editor Isaac Sehayek manage to advance the various stories and characters at a peppy pace while not forgetting that the film’s essentially a broad comedy with some action-film tropes -- all charmingly bungled by people who are too old to watch action movies, let alone do things that frequently occur in them.

That said, most of the laughs are dialog-related, and invariably, something will be lost in translation. Similarly, the English of Stewart’s character more often feels stilted rather than old-fashioned or aristocratic (clearly Levi is no Julian Fellowes). What’s not lost, however, is the film’s clear contempt for women, which feels antiquated even within a framework in which the average age of the characters is a couple of decades older than the state of Israel itself. Dorit’s a one-note Madonna figure, while the only other female supporting character of note, the spandex-wearing nurse Sigi (Rotem Zussman), is being eyed up like a whore by all the male characters. It's a sour note in a film that otherwise just wants to provide fun.

Gabai and Moshonov are clearly having a ball and Stewart tries to fit in the best he can, while newcomer Blank is entirely tone-deaf, often acting too much or too little. Abecassis does what she can in a thankless role and Zussman hams it up, no doubt in accordance with Levi's frequently unsubtle direction.

The assembly of the film is modest but professional.

Venue: Palm Springs Film Festival (World Cinema Now)

Production companies: Bleiberg Entertainment, United King Films

Cast: Gil Blank, Sasson Gabai, Moni Moshonov, Patrick Stewart, Yael Abecassis, Moshe Ivgy, Rotem Zussman

Director: Reshef Levi

Screenwriters: Reshef Levi, Regev Levi

Producers: Ehud Bleiberg, Nicholas Donnermeyer, Leon Edery, Moshe Edery

Director of photography: Yaron Scharf

Production designer: Arad Sawat

Music: Gilad Benamram

Costume designer: Inbal Shuki

Editor: Isaac Sehayek

Sales: Bleiberg Entertainment

No rating, 107 minutes.