The name Eytan Fox instantly evokes two associations. The New York-born director is one of Israel’s most accomplished filmmakers, and he is the country’s most visible and outspoken gay personality.
Fox’s films, like “Yossi & Jagger,” “Yossi” and “Walk on Water” revolve around gay relationships, usually with sad or conflicted undertones.
So it comes as something of a surprise that his latest production is a lively, humorous and nostalgic musical, with the light-hearted title “Cupcakes” (the Hebrew title is “Bananot” or bananas).
In its songs and depicted lifestyle, the film, co-written by Eli Bijaoui and Fox, harks back to the pop-tune era of the 1970s in an Israel where, at least in fond recollections, everybody knew everybody else, helped one another and minded everyone’s business.
Time may have sweetened recollections, but there is something to one actor’s description of the 1960s and ’70s as a time “when you went to a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar and stayed for coffee.”
In that same spirit, six young to early-middle-aged people living in the same Tel Aviv shikun (apartment house) know each other, celebrate together and commiserate with each other over their problems.
The six characters, portrayed by some of Israel’s most popular actors, are Ofer (Ofer Shechter), a gay kindergarten teacher; Anat (Anat Waxman), who runs a bakery shop; Efrat (Efrat Dor), a lesbian guitarist; Keren (Keren Berger), a shy, bespectacled blogger; Yael (Yael Bar-Zohar), a former Miss Israel turned lawyer; and Dana (Dana Ivgy), who works for a right-wing politician to please her Orthodox father.
One evening, when the friends get together, a downhearted Anat reveals that her husband has just left her and gone to Thailand. To console her, the friends break into an impromptu song, which tells her that though the present may be miserable, there are better days ahead. (The song was actually composed by Scott “Babydaddy” Hoffman of the pop group Scissor Sisters).
Someone takes a cellphone video of the singing sextet, and Ofer, without telling anyone, sends it on to the selection committee charged with picking Israel’s entry for the upcoming Universong competition.
Universong stands for the annual Eurovision Song Contest face-off, which was a very big deal in the 1970s, with each European country (plus Israel) sending its most talented — or weirdest — singers and dancers.
As in every good fairytale musical, the Israeli judges surprisingly choose “A Song for Anat” for its simplicity and genuine sentiment, and then set about changing it into a phony, overblown production number.
The judges also like the group’s diversity, one of them observing, “Too bad you don’t also have an Arab.”
However, the sextet, now performing under the name “Anat the Baker,” rebels against the imposed phoniness, and the members return to their original personas. They prevail, but the revolt costs them the government’s financial support. Again, all seems lost, but the day is saved through a kind of national crowdfunding appeal.
So the group flies to Paris for the contest, with every TV set in Israel tuned in. And, finally, the winner is …
Sorry, you’ll have to buy a ticket to a “Cupcakes,” screening on May 3 and 5 at the upcoming Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival to find out.
For all the let’s-put-on-a-show brio of “Cupcakes,” there are some probing questions. Most telling is the impact on the five women, who suddenly realize that if they accept the unforeseen gig, each will have to leave her comfort zone and risk public exposure, and, quite possibly, derision.
In the end, loyalty to the group and the lure of embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime challenge overcome fear and hesitation, and the adventure is on.
Fox was not immediately available for comment, but in an earlier interview with FilmLinc Daily, he was asked about his transition from making “serious” films to creating “Cupcakes.”
“I have various stories in me,” Fox replied. “It’s just like I can watch a serious [Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre] Dardenne film and be moved to tears, so I can watch a fun comedy. I actually watched ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ on television the other day.
“So I can do both, just like I can listen to [classical] music and then dream about going to Las Vegas and seeing Britney Spears. I love the genre, and if I had all the money in the world, I’d make a big musical. If I think about ‘Cupcakes,’ there are undertones of things I have dealt with in other films. The longing for some things Israel used to be, such as a strong sense of community and the group aspect, common goals, etc.”
The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival will screen “Cupcakes” on May 3 at 8 p.m. at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and again on May 5, at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. For more information and tickets, visit lajfilmfest.org or phone Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006.