Next time a guy stops and tells you a lewd joke in the park, do yourself a favor and just laugh.
Israeli writer/director Oren Camri’s first feature, “Goldberg and Eisenberg,” is a relentless dark comedy so determined in its singular vision that it begs to be interpreted as a parable. A low budget film that makes eerie use of undecorated apartments, generic-looking park benches and unnatural sound design, this is a psychological examination of how a (relatively) normal person reacts when, for whatever reason, the hand of fate comes down from above and annoyingly flicks that person repeatedly behind the ear.
Goldberg (Yitzhak Laor) is just an everyday putz. He lives alone and is unsuccessful at picking up women, though one has to give him points for being persistent. As he sits with his dog one evening after being stood up, he meets the crude and zhlubby Eisenberg (Yahav Gal).
Goldberg will wonder for the rest of his life if a little extra tact in shooing Eisenberg away might have changed things, but for now it doesn’t matter. The boorish Eisenberg is now obsessed with the thin, mild man who keeps R2-D2 and Gollum figurines next to his computer. This uninvited noodging steadily escalates from mere nuisance to existential threat.
“Goldberg and Eisenberg” is something of a shaggy dog play on Kafkaesque themes. The moodily lit parks and ominously empty Tel Aviv streets make an intriguing trade for the castles and corridors of Mitteleuropa. The paranoia and persecution is amplified with unpredictable music cues and ubiquitous animal sounds. (Tel Aviv and those cats!)
Importantly, however, when you least expect it, the movie is quite funny.
Goldberg finally gets a date (owning a dog still remains the best way to pick up women) and the dinner table banter, debating whether ownership of a time machine would be preferable to the power of flight, is unexpected and charming. Of course, Goldberg’s new albatross Eisenberg shows up to ruin the night… or does he slip something in the young woman’s drink that makes her more comfy around the nervous, chatty Goldberg?
There aren’t too many twists and turns in this film. Instead, it goes for the vice grip, the slow burn. We know things aren’t going to end well, but the specifics of how it gets that way is unpredictable. It’s hard to pin down when the film transitions from comedy to violence, but by the end we’ve transitioned to an entirely different movie.
A low budget film that ably mixes genres is exciting enough, but it is doubly exciting to get an Israeli film that ignores (or, at least, is subtle about) the pervasive security or religious issues that are so common with other cinematic exports. Indeed, it is a full 57 minutes (I checked) for the first and only specific reference to Israel’s political situation. (Eisenberg accuses Goldberg of being a wimp who would be unable to stand up to Arabs who want to destroy him.)
Then again, this absence is perhaps an invitation to interpret the entire picture as a treatise on the Israeli male psyche. Goldberg is seen slaving away at his computer, one of the many foot soldiers of innovation in the great “start-up nation.” Eisenberg is a blowhard, brimming with machismo, arguably representative of hawkish Kahanists. But then, nothing in this movie is quite so black and white. One of Eisenberg’s henchmen wears a swastika T-shirt and likes to curse in German. I’ll need a little more time to parse that one out.
“Goldberg and Eisenberg” makes its world debut this weekend at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the premiere American festival for “elite genre” films, meaning smart horror, sci-fi, action, edgy comedy and future-cult classics. (“Goldberg and Eisenberg” will definitely stand out amidst all the extreme martial arts films as the only title that feels inspired by Bernard Malamud stories.)
In addition to Carmi’s film, Fantastic Fest is hosting Ari Folman’s futuristic/half-animated “The Congress” and Keshales/Paushado’s comic horror film “Big Bad Wolves.” Whether or not “Goldberg and Eisenberg” has a further release after its festival run (as the other two films have secured) its presence in Austin is further indication to American audiences that Israeli cinema is currently undergoing an exciting expansion, producing films with crossover appeal.
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