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Israeli-made Hunting Elephants is a feel-good crime comedy

The Heart of the Beast

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Hunting Elephants got to me. Despite its flaws — the Viagra jokes, the general repetition of misogyny, and the implausible way in which three elderly men and a young boy manage to rob a bank — the three old stars of the film cut to my core in a way a younger cast could not. Hunting Elephants is a sweet, sad, and at times, really funny meditation on friendship.

Reshef Levy's film begins with 12-year-old Yonatan (Gil Blank) visiting his security guard father, Daniel (Zvika Hadar), at the bank where he works. His father has been installing a new security system — one that uses his family member's birthdays as passcodes — a fact he's quick to point out to Yonatan. Then, Yonatan's father has a heart attack in front of his son, dying behind the bars of the very security system he created. Yonatan, friendless and bullied at school, is now even more alone. To make matters worse, Yonatan and his mother, Dorit (Yael Abecassis), are left without any money, so the boy turns to his estranged grandparents for help.

Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai), Yonatan's grandfather, wants nothing to do with his son's widow. He's a grumpy old man mourning the sleeping body of his wife, Rhoda, who lies in a coma in the same old person's home in which he resides with his best friend, Nick (Moni Moshonov). Dorit drops Yonatan off at the retirement home so that his grandfather can watch him for a few hours. Dorit explains to Eliyahu why she must leave her son. Quite simply, "He doesn't have any friends."

Hanging out at the retirement home, Yonatan, Eliyahu, and Nick are soon joined by Lord Michael Simpson (Sir Patrick Stewart), Eliyahu's brother-in-law. He's a washed-up British stage actor in a lot of debt, and he visits his comatose sister in Israel, hoping to reclaim some of their family's money and property.

The chemistry among the three adult characters is what you'd expect to find in an Israeli version of Grumpier Old Men. Stewart and Gabai provide most of the laughs with their back and forth jabs, with Simpson repeatedly mispronouncing Eliyahu's name. He only speaks in English, and everyone around him answers in English, opening the door for some questions about cultural sensitivity, but hey, it's a comedy, right?

Not surprisingly, Simpson has a flair for the dramatic, and throughout the film he asks when he will get the chance to perform a monologue. Spoiler: he finds the right time.

The men become the closest thing Yonatan has ever had to friends, and Eliyahu and Yonatan connect in a way that almost makes up for the lack of a relationship Eliyahu had with his own son. It is in these moments between grandfather and grandson that we connect with Eliyahu. He can be a real jerk, telling Yonatan that he doesn't care about him, and then he can surprise Yonatan — and us — with scenes of chivalrous grandpa kindness. I mean, at one point he holds a gun to a bully's head, but at least Yonatan doesn't have to get beat up at school anymore.

The four cohorts need money for various reasons, and Yonatan suggests that they have all the right tools to rob a bank. A ridiculous premise? Yes. But as Eliyahu points out, children and old people can get away with almost anything. We learn that Eliyahu and Nick used to rob banks (why they are not in prison is one of the implausible crime-caper oddities we must ignore), and Yonatan has a bank card and the codes to the safe where his father used to work. A winning combination indeed.

Perhaps because Levy has paired Yonatan with much older counterparts, he succeeds in tricking us into thinking that Yonatan is an adult capable of crime. He certainly struggles with adult obstacles. Sitting in corners with his headphones on, you wonder how much of his loneliness he's contemplating. He is eager and sincere and bubbling up with emotion, leaving us to wonder when and how he may explode. Near the end of the film, in what can best be compared to a John Hughes moment, we see Yonatan on the brink of youthful angst, bicycling at night, screaming at the top of his lungs into the dark.

Where Yonatan struggles with youth, Eliyahu, Nick, and Simpson struggle with age. Eliyahu walks with a cane and Nick shuffles around behind a walker, his urine bag attached. Simpson is the most virile of the three old men, but his cowardice keeps him in line. We see that the men perhaps led questionable former lives and we wonder if their actions are motivated by a desire to do good for Yonatan, or simply to live out bitter old man fantasies.

The men attempt to rob the bank several times — and I won't say if they succeed. Their various plans don't make a whole lot of sense, but then again, some of that can probably be chalked up to cultural differences. An Israeli audience may get the plot points better than an American one.

Throughout Hunting Elephants, Levy never loses touch with the seriousness of his film. Even in the funny moments we are reminded that there is much more than money at stake. Yonatan needs someone to care about him. And the men? Well, they just need one last adventure.

Related Film

Hunting Elephants

Director: Reshef Levi

Writer: Reshef Levi and Reshef Levi

Producer: Ehud Bleiberg, Moshe Edery and Leon Edery

Cast: Sasson Gabai, Moni Moshonov, Patrick Stewart, Gil Blank, Yaƫl Abecassis, Moshe Ivgy, Zvika Hadar, Rotem Zisman and Mairav Kupperberg

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