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The Delightful Karaoke Is Both Comic and Profound

Photo: © Hadas Parush courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.

A curated songlist. Teleprompted lyrics. A mic and speakers. Backup instrumentation. You get a little help in karaoke, but at the end of the day, it’s just you and the song, your vocal performance determining whether you sink or swim. It takes confidence, a little swagger, and at least a little competence to sway a crowd. The protagonist of the brilliant new Israeli film Karaoke, a milquetoast middle-aged man named Meir, seems as unlikely a performer to take the microphone as any you might imagine. But there’s a surprising set of circumstances leading to his big moment, and like this delightful film, Meir pretty much nails it.

The karaoke performance that lends Karaoke (written and directed by Moshe Rosenthal) its title isn’t really its climax so much as it is a turning point in Meir (Sasson Gabay) and his wife Tova’s (Rita Shukrun) life. Longtime empty nesters whose children flew the coop long ago, Meir and Tova are in the doldrums despite living in a comfortable upscale Tel Aviv high rise. Their marriage is no longer a romance but a cooperative, a placid, passionless partnership. With his greying, receding hairline, sagging jowls, and sad-sack demeanor, Meir seems like his youth is far behind him. It’s the same for Tova: despite her beauty she dreams of the past, when the two of them enjoyed passionate dances and nights on the town.

Meir and Tova stand in the doorway of Itsik's apartment in Karaoke.
Sasson Gabay as Meir and Rita Shukrun as Tova in Karaoke. Photo: © Hadas Parush courtesy Greenwich Entertainment.

Their life of banal “pretirement” is disrupted by what at first seems like the slightest of incidents: a sports car blocks Meir in his parking spot. An outraged Meir is ready to confront the car’s owner but is instead charmed by him, a new tenant named Itzik (Lior Ashkenazi), a blond, young(er) hunk with flowing locks and an intense, gregarious demeanor. Itzik lives the kind of life Meir and Tova dream of: sports cars, stylish friends, swank digs, and lively parties. And in an effort to compensate Meir for the parking inconvenience, Itzik invites the two to his penthouse flat for a night of … karaoke.

To summarize the rather pedestrian plot—staid couple finds their life upended by charismatic stranger—this way is to do Karaoke an injustice. The film is so, so sprightly edited and perfectly performed, with all three leads expert in their comic timing, that watching it unfold, without any idea at all where it is headed, is pure joy. I can scarcely remember such a delightfully scripted, shot, performed, and edited film, fully confident of where it’s going and how it’s getting there at every moment. Of course, the fun is that we viewers have no idea what might happen as Meir and Itzik become increasingly obsessed with, then enmeshed in, Itzik’s fast-and-not-a-little-loose lifestyle.

Itsik offers Meir a drink in Karaoke.
Lior Ashkenazi as Itzik in Karaoke. Photo: © Hadas Parush courtesy Greenwich

Meir’s karaoke performance is the tipping point. Physically uncomfortable and lacking confidence, the older man, at Itzik’s urging, takes the mic and, despite his anxieties, delivers a heartfelt and affecting interpretation of a song that captures the room’s attention, even that of the twenty- and thirtysomething-aged jetsetters that populate Itzik’s parties. It’s a performance that signals Meir indeed had once the kind of panache that had made him an attractive man, at least before the paunch, the jowls, and the male-pattern baldness rendered him less confident.

Tova gets caught up in this frenzy as well, obsessing about her appearance and her interactions with Itzik, even as she delights in Meir’s newfound confidence. It’s clear all the time that, as Meir and Tova’s obsessions accelerate, that there will be conflicts, but it’s better here simply to say that the plot is full of delightful surprises from start to unpredictable finish. Along the way there are moments of intense panic and delightful cringe both: my favorite is when a made-up Meir, his hair so slick with colorant his adult daughters call him Gargamel, is cast in a commercial for a fitness gym and endures a come-to-Giuliani moment.

As Itzik’s disruptive parties bring together the homeowners’ association in protest, Meir and Tova’s youth crusade intensifies, the two of them acting out long-dormant ambitions and desires. Fabay and Shukrun, stars of Israeli cinema, are both excellent, willing to make themselves both the butts of the film’s sly jokes, but they also both are capable of registering deeper emotions: though each plays the fool they both also undertake a serious journey of self-exploration. As the younger, brasher, more confident and alluring Itzik, Ashkenazi is every bit their equal, his enigmatic charm eventually giving way to an earnest empathy.

Meir and Tova dance in Karaoke.
Sasson Gabay as Meir and Rita Shukrun as Tova in Karaoke. Photo: © Hadas Parush courtesy Greenwich

At its conclusion, Karaoke may feel just a bit predictable in ways the film’s plot had never been to that point. Yet surely a film as gracious as this teaches us to forgive a small fault. With its moving performances, pitch-perfect timing, and generous, gregarious spirit, Karaoke is as delightful and affecting a film about aging as one is likely to see.

Karaoke opens on Friday, March 29 in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, and other US cities.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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