Ten years on, plodding Yossi needs a pick-me-up

A decade has passed and much has changed since Israeli director Eytan Fox scored his first international hit with “Yossi & Jagger.”

A deeply felt drama about the secret affair between two male officers stationed on the Lebanese border, the film had the courage to depict a homosexual relationship in the midst of the most notoriously macho institution in Israeli society.

Within the frame of a forbidden love story, “Yossi & Jagger” critiqued the anything-goes morality of straight army officers as well as the assumption that every heroic soldier is heterosexual.

Ohad Knoller as Yossi

The film and its vivid main characters (played by heartthrobs Ohad Knoller and Yehuda Levi) resonated so strongly with audiences that Fox has picked up the trail 10 years on with “Yossi.”

The youthful exuberance and brashness of “Yossi & Jagger” has been supplanted, however, by a dreary sense of plodding toward middle age. Where the first film hummed with testosterone, sexual energy and adrenaline, the sequel depicts a benumbed world in which people go through the motions.

At its center is sleep-deprived Dr. Yossi Guttman (Knoller, reprising his character), a 33-year-old Tel Aviv cardiologist without a social life beyond Internet dating sites and porn portals. When he does engage in a social encounter, it serves to reveal how out of step he is with the values and goals of the hookup generation.

While his work matters, everywhere else Yossi seems to have settled for a monochromatic and monotone existence of diminished expectations. The movie

doesn’t go so far as to suggest that Yossi has given up on finding love since he lost his soul mate — the movie cliché to end all movie clichés — but it doesn’t offer an alternative explanation for Yossi’s surrender to his dismal routine.

Israeli attitudes toward homosexuality have softened in the last 10 years, at least in the big cities, but Yossi hasn’t. He’s unable or unwilling to tell his co-workers (the closest thing he has to friends) that he’s gay, even though some gossips on the floor have reached their own conclusions.

An enigmatic, episodic character study, “Yossi” relies heavily on Knoller’s likability and charm to keep us invested in its low-stakes saga. The actor, who put on a couple of pounds and grew a shlubby beard, is adept at imbuing Yossi with sensitivity and compassion but is given only a few moments where his character is moved to action.

It is Yossi’s persistent lack of inspiration, even more than his inertia or ennui, and more than the lack of developed secondary characters, that gradually erodes the viewer’s good will. It’s hard to root for someone who can’t, or won’t, make an effort.

Movie conventions exert a powerful force, though, and we expect that something or someone is going to compel Yossi to change lanes and get out of his rut. That time does come, and one could say Yossi makes the first move. But the other fellow is compelled to make the next six.

As one expects from an Eytan Fox movie, the soundtrack features several well-chosen Israeli and U.S. pop songs. Keren Ann provides a couple tunes and is granted some screen time with a live performance at an Eilat resort.

Of all the ways in which Yossi’s life might have progressed since we met him, “Yossi” opts for a singularly prosaic direction. Let’s hope in 10 years Fox envisions him as a more forceful personality, one who cuts more of a swath through Israeli society.

“Yossi” opens Friday, Feb. 15 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the California in Berkeley. In Hebrew with English subtitles. (Not rated, 84 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.