In 2003, Israeli director Eytan Fox caused a stir with his military romance “Yossi and Jagger.” The film’s emotionally generous story of a clandestine love affair between two gay combat soldiers, one dashing and daring, one shy and introverted, stirred controversy in some quarters of Israeli society.
Ten years on, Fox returns to the surviving character of that piece, finding Yossi a decade older, sadder and deeper in the closet. Now he’s Dr. Gutman, a Tel Aviv cardiologist woefully out of sync with his own heart. Still mourning the death of his beloved Jagger in a futile skirmish, Yossi has retreated into a joyless routine of work, sleep, greasy takeout Chinese dinners and laptop porn. He desperately needs to leave his shell, but he’s spitirually paralyzed, marinating in misery as he listens to Mahler and reads “Death in Venice.”
Ohad Knoller plays the depressive hero wonderfully, with doleful eyes and a slumping posture. Appearing in virtually every shot, he capably carries the film. He makes Yossi not simply a concept but a convincing human being. He keeps our sympathy even as he tests our patience. An accomplished minimalist, he can convey volumes with a fleeting smile or a half-beat hesitation.
Yossi is so private that a lonely female nurse has developed a crush on him, while a brash, newly divorced colleague (Lior Ashkenazi), arm-twists him into visiting a pickup club to celebrate. In each case the outcome is awkward in the extreme.
Think things can’t get worse? An online hookup with a sleek, egocentric studmuffin ends with the man castigating Yossi for posting a younger, slimmer photo of himself. And a chance meeting with Jagger’s mother at the hospital leads Yossi to reveal his relationship to Jagger’s parents. Their uncomprehending surprise is a sort of last straw for Yossi, who heads to a resort for a long-deferred vacation.
En route he picks up four hitchhiking soldiers, one of whom (model-handsome Oz Zehavi) eyes him flirtatiously in the rear-view mirror. The carefree gay soldier’s fellow recruits don’t pay much attention to his sexuality: Israeli society has evolved, though Yossi hasn’t. It seems Yossi’s luck might change, if only he would let it.
The film’s pacing sputters as Fox drags Yossi through dreary scenes of self-denying repression. Even when the dishy serviceman makes his intentions clear, Yossi drags his feet. When our hangdog hero finally makes his breakthrough, he emerges with stars in his eyes, expecting to settle into an unrealistic new fantasy life of sun, surf and sensuality. On the surface it’s a leave-’em-smiling happy ending. It doesn’t take a heart specialist to wonder — a week, a month, a year beyond this blissful morning after, will Yossi’s personal demons have the best of him once again?