Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Slamdance Review: Goldberg & Eisenberg

Posted by on Tue, Jan 21, 2014 at 11:55 PM

Goldberg & Eisenberg
  • Goldberg & Eisenberg
Goldberg, a lonely and awkward Israeli computer programmer, wanders the parks of Tel Aviv with his dog, in hopes of making a love connection. The connection he makes, with an abrasive and persistent man by the name of Eisenberg, is not what he was looking for. Unfortunately, Eisenberg won’t take no for an answer. As Eisenberg’s harassment gets out of control, and the local police do nothing, Goldberg tries to take matters in his own hands. Unfortunately, he's not nearly as good as Eisenberg in the dangerous game of retaliation.

At first Eisenberg seems like a somewhat abrasive extrovert who takes offense at being snubbed, and means to rub it in the uptight Goldberg’s face by embarrassing him in public. Very quickly, however, things escalate far beyond awkward. Neither one is blameless, but in the war for respect Eisenberg is ruthless and unrepentant.

This film’s billing as “Israel’s answer to the Coen brothers” and “like a Tarantino movie, had he grown up in a different time and place” is not entirely accurate. It's closer to The Cable Guy, but much darker and less funny. It’s a confident debut, which has played to acclaim at a number of festivals, including Slamdance where I got a chance to see it, but it’s not as self-assured or original as anything by the directors whose work it’s been compared to.

It is an intriguing setup, and the actors do a good job convincing us these are real people and not merely types. The film does manage to ratchet up the tension effectively, from discomfort to pain to horror, all of which suggests a filmmaker with some storytelling talent. The film is shot well enough to make the scenario clear, although in daylight scenes the brights are all blown out. Perhaps that was a stylistic choice, and it gives the film as a whole a somewhat surreal feel, but it seemed to me out of keeping with the overall realistic tone. A dream sequence in the middle of the film also struck me as ill-placed, as it introduced a sudden shock into what had been slowly building apprehensions about the possibility that Eisenberg was not only socially awkward and abrasive but truly unhinged and dangerous.

At first I thought the film was aiming for a commentary on class in Israel, that in spite of the ostensive claim that all Jews are welcome there, the message might have been that some Jews are less welcome than others based on social and economic status. Not only is Goldberg apparently less well off than Eisenberg, he is somewhat slovenly in appearance, and is overweight, and the film marks him and his family as outsider “hicks” from an agricultural community far outside the city of Tel Aviv. Yet the film goes much further, and draws upon a range of presumed audience prejudices, to align their sympathies with Goldberg and against Eisenberg. Eisenberg’s ultimate motives for harassing Goldberg are depicted as stemming from a homosexual infatuation, an infatuation that I think “we” are meant to find disgusting as it even bothers his relatives when they become aware of it. Playing on a presumed homophobia of the audience strikes me as the least excusable aspect of the film.

Setting that aside, though — and I find that hard to do — the filmmakers clearly have talent, and I would consider this akin to a very promising student film with problems one might hope could be resolved in a sophomore feature. The story is, for the most part, well told, offering plausible characters and surprising developments. It moves, for the most part, seamlessly from what looks like an awkward and mismatched buddy comedy to suspense to horror. There is also more than a hint of a political subtext, according to which the relationship between these two very different Israeli citizens might stand as an allegory for the nation as a whole and to various attitudes regarding how one responds to threats both inside and outside the country. Depending on the viewer’s own attitudes about Israel and its internal politics and its relationships to its neighbor, the implicit allegorical message may be considered compelling or problematic.

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