Hunting Elephants (2013)
Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, which runs from May 1st to May 11th. For more information please visit tjff.com or follow the Toronto Jewish Film Festival on Twitter at @TJFFtweets.
Hollywood take note: Hunting Elephants is how to do a geriatric comedy properly. It’s funny, sad, endearing, heartfelt and most of all genuine. There are no forced moments, everything comes about naturally and everyone in the cast is equally funny and tragic. The whole thing is helped along by a hilarious performance by Patrick Stewart as a struggling actor who shamed his noble family by becoming an actor, but that doesn’t stop him from flaunting his title in everyone’s face.
The story is of Jonathan (Gil Blank), a twelve year old Israeli boy who is constantly bullied at school because he is gifted but socially inept. One night, he is with his father Daniel (Zvika Hadar) who is head of security at a bank. He is working to develop a security cage to prevent robberies and keep the robbers inside if the alarm is tripped. He also suffers from a heart condition and dies as a result of the cage preventing Jonathan from getting his medicine to him during a heart attack. Since Daniel was not alone at the time of his death, the insurance won’t pay out and that leaves Jonathan and his mother Dorit (Yael Abecassis) nearly destitute.
Hollywood take note: Hunting Elephants is how to do a geriatric comedy properly.
Droit then takes Jonathan to his paternal grandfather Eliyahu (Sasson Gabai) at an old folks home so he is not left alone while she works. There is a significant rift between Eliyahu and his son’s family (Jonathan was told his paternal grandparents were dead) and Eliyahu doesn’t want anything to do with Jonathan, but he sticks around anyway and befriends Nick (Moni Moshonov), a friend of Eliyahu’s from when they were terrorists trying to aid in the creation of the state of Israel. Jonathan’s grandmother is in a coma in the same retirement village and is the sister of Lord Michael Simpson (Patrick Stewart) who learns of his sister’s condition from Dorit while she is trying to get money from him. He’s as broke as anyone else though, so he flies to Israel (without being able to speak or understand Hebrew) and tries to obtain control of his father’s house that was lent to his sister and Eliyahu so he can get money (as I mentioned, he’s a struggling actor who was cut out of his father’s will).
With his time spent with his Eliyahu, Nick (who needs an eye operation that he can’t afford) and Michael and all of them needing money, Jonathan devises a way to rob the bank his father worked for and died in. He knows the codes to the security system because his father told him so he comes up with a scheme to get into the vault and clear it out.
To go further would rob you of the surprises both comedic and tragic that happen along the way to the execution of the robbery. Co-writer/director Reshef Levi and co-writer Regev Levy have created something that is rare but attempted quite frequently nowadays: a funny comedy starring older actors. Hollywood keeps trying to give these to us, but all they do is fill them with jokes about how old the characters are and what on their bodies don’t work anymore. They forget that they are people and not just ages and ignore the fact that older people can still function in the world without always saying that their back, knees, eyes or penis don’t work well anymore. Levi and Levy give each character a personality and a backstory that rounds them out and makes them interesting in their own right. I wouldn’t mind seeing younger iterations of Eliyahu and Nick when they belonged to their terrorist organization or Lord Simpson doing more on stage (when he is introduced, he is in the middle of a production of Hamlet that has been reorganized into Star Wars. I actually want to see that whole thing, especially with Patrick Stewart as Darth Vader, as he was here). Even Jonathan is a fully realized character, and that is tough to do for a child role.
The linchpin of the film is the acting, though. Of course Stewart is great, he always is. His comic turn may surprise those only familiar with his roles of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation…
Another thing that makes the film so good is the structure that Levi employs. He made the film as a kind of fake documentary, going over how the robbery happened and what the men were like. Most of the film is not in the vein, so when it cuts to an interview of someone involved or an expert, the result is a little jarring but ultimately makes sense. Levi also works in fantasy sequences, notably for Jonathan, wherein we see what he wants to do then we see what actually happens and the two are drastically different. These sequences are not only funny, but give important character information that we may not have received otherwise.
The linchpin of the film is the acting, though. Of course Stewart is great, he always is. His comic turn may surprise those only familiar with his roles of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Professor Xavier in the X-Men films, but also remember he voices recurring characters on Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad and Family Guy. He sells his character so well and despite being the only actor that people who do not regularly watch Israeli films will know, he never tramples on his fellow actors. He lets them have as much room as they need without upstaging them. It’s actually pretty remarkable that he took over the roll from John Cleese when he had to drop out for health reasons. As good as Stewart is, I would have liked to see Cleese in this. He doesn’t have the austere quality that Stewart does, and it would have been a completely different character, but I don’t think the film would have suffered for it. As it is though, Stewart is perfect for the role. In fact, every one of the principle cast is fantastic and all work so well together that I wouldn’t mind seeing them all together for another film.
It’s a rare thing to see older actors treated with this kind of respect in a comedy. By respect, I mean that they are given real characters to play instead of caricatures of age who just complain about being old and make the people around them feel bad for being young. These characters are experienced at life and try to help Jonathan as much as they can while still ultimately trying to help themselves. Hunting Elephants is a wonderful and unexpected film that delights at every turn, though it does not turn a blind eye to sadness as a result. It deals with some very heavy material side by side with the hilarious concept of a group of old men and a pre-teen robbing a bank. It is not to be missed.
Hunting Elephants is a wonderful and unexpected film that delights at every turn, though it does not turn a blind eye to sadness as a result. It deals with some very heavy material side by side with the hilarious concept of a group of old men and a pre-teen robbing a bank. It is not to be missed.