Part Tarantino, part ‘Parasite,’ totally Jewish — Michael Mayer’s Israeli Hollywood nightmare
It’s just after Havdalah, the post-Shabbat religious service that separates the holy from the profane. Michael Aloni, cute as ever, is sitting at the dining room table, along with members of his family and a number of guests. The rabbi from the school is supposed to be joining them. No matter—they’ll get started without him. Everyone wishes each other a “shavua tov” – a greeting for a good week.
The scene has barely begun when it becomes clear this melaveh malka will not be a peaceful one. At first, it’s small-scale drama: One guest is out of place and requires guidance. Someone complains the rabbi will probably want money (is he a schnorrer?). Aloni is acting truculently toward the family patriarch. The patriarch sits at the head of the table and glowers and silences everyone as he hands out sidurim, reminding them that this — this congregation of people round the dinner table, the community they are a part of — is not a democracy.
If you’re a devoted fan of “Shtisel,” you probably assume I’m describing the long-awaited third season, which has begun airing in Israel. After all, the chief tension in that show about an ultra-Orthodox family occurs between Aloni, who plays the main character, Kiva Shtisel, and his father, Shulem.
Except in this scene, Aloni is not in peyos and black hat; in fact, he won’t even put on a kippah. This Michael Aloni — here called Michael — gestures at the siddur and says, in English, “I don’t know why we keep reading this book. It’s full of racist shit.” He explains to his Black girlfriend, a French actress with a seemingly Muslim name, that the siddur says “we’re better than you because we’re Jewish.” If there is guilt for the xenophobic sentiment, it is short lived, as the girlfriend, Aliya, soon shocks and appalls her Israeli interlocutors when she says she doesn’t want children (the greatest of transgressions against her sex in this milieu).
The film in question is “Happy Times,” or in Hebrew, “Nitra’eh Besmachot,” an expression not unlike the popular Yinglish term “only simchas.” The film, which tells the story of a post-Shabbat dinner in the Hollywood Hills that devolves into deadly disaster, is the latest from Los-Angeles-based Israeli director Michael Mayer, whose first feature film, “Out in the Dark” (2012), also starred Aloni. In that film, Aloni played a gay, privileged, Jewish lawyer who falls in love with a young Palestinian Muslim student (Nicholas Jacob), with tragic consequences.
Spoiler (but not really): Everyone dies at the end of “Happy Times.” But how? Following Chekhov’s rule that if a rifle is hanging on the wall in the first scene, it must go off in the third, keep your eyes on everything hanging on the wall: the shofar… the hamsa …. Even peyos become a murder weapon in this Jewish danse macabre.
Like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite,” “Happy Times” is a dark comedic thriller interlaced with social commentary. Casual racism is a running theme. Sigal, the female lead, played by Liraz Chamami, looking very Penelope Cruz out of an Almodóvar film, is full of her own benevolence as she condescendingly corrects her Mexican housekeeper’s hors d’oeuvres arrangement and offers her a bag of second-hand clothes for her son. Hila, her Israeli friend, virtue signals by making reference to volunteering in Mozambique and leans over and touches the one Black guest, fingering her necklace, and asking if it’s from Africa. Aliya, bewildered, responds, “I don’t know. I got it at Forever21.”
The patriarch, Yossi, regales his company with a story of being in South Central L.A. and fearing that he would get jumped by a group of Black men. “Kooshim,” he calls them, a pejorative term for Blacks, and later “gorillas.” Michael is disgusted with Yossi’s racism but then, Michael refers to Yossi as an “ape in Armani,” showing us he’s also racist — against Mizrahim. No matter Michael’s liberal posturing, he still needs someone to be the object of his scorn. Welcome to Israelis, the film suggests: if they don’t hate one group, they hate another.
From the mom who chases a departing guest with lethal bow and arrow and a plate of leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil to the chiloni who can’t stop poking fun at religion (“What blessing do we say on that, Rabbi Matti?” Michael asks after witnessing a husband stab a nagging wife in the jugular), “Happy Times” brilliantly exaggerates every Israeli Jewish national character trait in Tarantinoesque satire. Even as you’re laughing, though, it’s hard to miss the serious condemnation of Israeli culture. The film reveals the ways in which Israelis are not only racist, but also self-righteous, xenophobic, spoiled, and ultimately violent, the products of the extreme tribalism that has become the norm in the “Promised Land.”
The secular against the religious, the right wing against the left, the Ashkenazi against the Mizrahi – take a group of Israelis and put them together and soon they will be fighting. And where better to set a film about the range of Jewish Israeli society than L.A.? After all, in Israel, you aren’t going to have the snobs in high tech mingling with the seedy developers and struggling actors. They live in different neighborhoods, different cities even. They send their kids to different schools. But in L.A., if you’re Israeli, you are part of the community. Religious, secular, no matter; you still send your kids to the Chabad pre-school. LA, it turns out, is the ultimate Israeli microcosm. And it doesn’t look good.
“We’re not fighting. This is just how Israelis talk,” Yossi explains to Aliya early on in the film.
Let’s hope not.