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Patrick Stewart Can't Quite Save Israeli Senior Comedy

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on May 15, 2015 6:50PM

Moni Moshonov, Sasson Gabai, Gil Blank and Patrick Stewart in “Hunting Elephants.” (Photo courtesy of XLrator Media.)

Hunting Elephants is the latest entry in a somewhat recent trend in movies that I sometimes uncharitably call "senior porn." No ... not that kind (though I'm sure that's very popular in some circles as well). I'm talking about feel-good movies about older folks that have proliferated as senior citizens have been living longer and seeking out movies that cater to their demographic. It's a genre growing in reaction against studio blockbusters that mainly serve teens-to-thirtysomethings. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Last Vegas and The Bucket List would be recent examples.

The "senior porn" label came to mind as trailer after trailer of these movies suggested to me a formula of delivering the goods of world-wary one-liners, tear-jerking sentiment, and age-defying romance or adventure in a manner not unlike how pornography delivers its promised goods of a very different sort. In other words, expect no surprises.

But you know what? I'm starting to be thankful for "senior porn," as it is one of the few remaining niches where a modestly budgeted, character-driven movie can still succeed with a theatrical release. Also, frankly, the label is too glibly dismissive. Danny Collins, with Al Pacino as an aging pop star, certainly falls into feel-good territory, but it also has some real emotional honestly and character complexity...not to mention one of Pacino's more subtle performances of recent years. And while Le Week-End was advertised largely as fluff for retirees, the movie was actually an often brutally truthful, bittersweet look at a problematic marriage.

So where does the Israeli production Hunting Elephants fit into the evolving realm of movies aimed mainly at the senior set? In a very odd corner indeed. This does have many of the previously mentioned formulaic elements, including its basic plot—three old guys try to rob a bank—which goes back at least as far as 1979's Going in Style. You also have the predictable screenplay checkpoints of seniors commenting crudely on their sex lives, reconciling with a younger relative and trying to make up for a failing in their past. But when you add proud former Israeli militants hanging out with an anti-Semitic Londoner, off-color humor that often seems more fitting for a Hangover sequel and some surprisingly strong snippets of violence, you get quite a bizarre mix.

It's not a good mix and not a very good movie, though it has its moments in the early going. Patrick Stewart is clearly having a lot of fun as an English actor away from his country and out of his depth. He plays high comedy against the gallows humor embodied by Sasson Gabi (seen recently in the excellent Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem), who becomes the ringleader of the thieves after a very reluctant reunion with his grandson in the wake of his son's death while working as a bank security guard.

The movie's broadest gags rarely hit, but there are some very funny lines as the characters are established. Stewart gets the best of them, especially when he's trying to pass himself off at the bank as a fundraiser for an Israeli military memorial. "It's a foundation for the old, brave Jewish terrorists who founded this overheated country," he explains good-naturedly, blissfully unaware of his language revealing his prejudices.

But Hunting Elephants loses any goodwill when the poorly orchestrated heist is played out. Seeing the most likeable of the three aged robbers (played by Moni Moshonov) get kicked by police is no fun. And the character of the grandson is a pretty insufferable innocent. He's the crutch the movie leans all its sentimental moments on and teen actor Gil Blank hasn't developed the skills yet to give his character more than the thin writing supplies.

As characters without capes or cowls struggle to find a place at the multiplex, movies made with older audiences in mind could be key in keeping mainstream cinema from turning into a Marvel amusement park. But if that's going to be the case, the "senior porn" needs to be a little more virile than Hunting Elephants.

Hunting Elephants. Directed by Reshef Levi. Written by Reshef and Regev Levi. Starring Sasson Gabai, Patrick Stewart and Moni Moshonov. In Hebrew and English with English subtitles. No MPAA rating. 107 mins.

Opens Friday, May 15 at AMC's Northbrook Court 14 theaters.