Opens Fri., Dec. 12 at Varsity. Not rated. 100 minutes.
They don’t make movies like M*A*S*H anymore, at least not in this country. We’ve been at war so long that it’s difficult to imagine when an irreverent military comedy—much less a satire—will come out of Hollywood or Sundance again. Things are different in Israel, a nation where compulsory military service and intermittent conflict have been the norm for decades. Only the comedy in Zero Motivation, sometimes dark, springs not from combat but from tedium on an IDF base somewhere in the desert. There are no car bombs or terrorists, only the daily monotony of typing reports, making tea, and shredding documents in what used to be called the secretarial pool. Zero Motivation is based on the IDF experiences of writer/director Talya Lavie, who has little use for heroics or nostalgia. She filters her distaff story through three different women facing the same oppressive sexism of the military.
Slackers Zohar and Daffi are besties who at first appear to be cut from the same cloth. They’re bored and resentful upon returning to base after a short leave, but Zohar (Dana Ivgy) seems more resigned to the situation. She does nothing but sulk, avoid work, and play computer games. Meanwhile the slightly more chipper Daffi (Nelly Tagar) is determined to transfer back to Tel Aviv. To do this, she must impress her boss Rama (Shani Klein), one of the few female officers on base. Around them swirl a gallery of noobs and cynics; everyone in the barracks seems a little unhinged by the desert isolation; and there’s a tragedy that has one Russian immigrant soldier seeing ghosts.
Lavie’s characters are clockwatchers whose response to the absurdities of military life is mostly deadpan. They’re women engaged in everyday resistance to bureaucracy, one reason Zero Motivation often feels like a sitcom-during-wartime. (The Brits once did that kind of thing very well, and some professional joke writers would’ve helped Lavie’s cause.) The few laughs here aren’t profound, and Lavie doesn’t really have any deeper point—unlike, say, Catch-22 or Mister Roberts—about the inanities of war or military service. Still, 34 years after Private Benjamin, Zero Motivation is a welcome film long overdue.