Despite missteps, 'The Farewell Party' aims high 


The Farewell Party: B-

Can we just applaud the intentions instead of the film? Co-writers/directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon are clearly out to make a compassionate and entertaining case for individuals to have the right to die with dignity when faced with terminal illness. In their Israeli award-wining The Farewell Party, they mount a convincing (if mostly one-sided) argument for euthanasia with a modest approach that acknowledges the moral and religious issues at stake but never crosses the line into pedantry or polemics. Unfortunately, the filmmakers mistake their clumsy and clunky attempts at humor as black comic savvy and end up infantilizing an otherwise capable ensemble of senior citizens.

Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revach) whiles away his time in a Jerusalem retirement home by cobbling together well-meaning inventions that don't work. When a fellow resident asks for help ending her terminally ill husband's misery, Yehezkel does a little research and learns how to construct Dr. Philip Nitschke's "Deliverance Machine," a device that allows those who wish to die to push a button and receive a lethal dose of narcotics. The idea is that the machine is designed in such a way that neither doctors nor friends and family will be legally held responsible for the patient's actions. Having successfully constructed a prototype, Yehezkel finds himself in high demand, as ailing denizens catch wind of his machine. Of course, that means donning his twinkly eyed angel of death persona without doctors and staff catching on.

This where the comedic high jinks come into play. But as conceived by Granit and Maymon, it's mostly cheap schtick to grab even cheaper yucks. Think an unholy union of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Michael Haneke's Amour. For instance, as a squad of elderly death dealers creep down a darkened hallway toward a suffering resident, one opines, "Maybe we should come back when we'll attract less attention." Cue the trash can being toppled by a bungling co-conspirator. Later, a subplot emerges about an elderly man who has been carrying on a homosexual relationship with another resident behind his wife's back. When he's discovered hiding in the closet, someone actually says, "He's still, you know, in the closet."

Oh, those silly seniors! At one point, one Yehezkel's wife Levana (Levana Finkelstein) explains to a young retirement home employee that her friends are "like children. Only their bodies have changed." It's the kind of clichéd and condescending view of old age that Ron Howard indulged in Cocoon whenever he needed an easy laugh.

Which isn't to say that sometimes the humor doesn't work. At one point the seniors use a cop's ageist attitudes to avoid a speeding ticket, and the opening scene with Yehezkel pretending to be the voice of God in order to get a friend to take her medicine is both amusing and endearing.

The film's best moments center around Levana, first as the appalled voice of moral and ethical reconsideration and then, faced with her own painful future, as a potential user of her husband's invention. "I'm disappearing," she says to Yehezkel, and he can't accept the truth of her growing dementia. Finkelstein is a charismatic and beautifully understated actress who earns the camera's attention (as awkward as that sometimes is) as she struggles with the mortifying reality of her situation. Her husband's hypocritical denial makes for a terrific dramatic conflict that isn't quite what it could be but still amounts to much.

While The Farewell Party too often succumbs to hackneyed quirk and an unearned stand-up-and-cheer sensibility, there's no denying the haunting poignancy of Levana's impending demise. It gives Granit and Maymon's film a soulfulness that would otherwise be missing, capturing the passion, agency, and contradictions our youth-obsessed world fails to recognize in its elders.

The Farewell Party opens on Friday at Royal Oak's Main Art Theatre.

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