August 7, 2017 (originally published on Film Inquiry)
by Sasha Kohan
Upon its release three years ago, Talya Lavie’s dark comedy Zero Motivation was most frequently likened to a combination of M*A*S*H, Girls, and Orange is the New Black, but—while these comparisons aren’t inaccurate—I wasn’t reminded of any of them while watching. Instead, these are a few things that did come to mind: Chekhov; the Coen brothers; Veep; The Replacements; The Parking Lot Movie; David Lynch; Mean Girls; Kafka; I Love Dick; and every office comedy I’ve ever seen – to name a few pieces of pop culture evoked sporadically throughout this hilarious, gender-driven, existential, bleak army comedy. It’s one of the best movies I’ve watched this year, and one of the most memorable comedies I have ever seen.
“Being a Paper & Shredding NCO is what you make it.”
Zero Motivation follows an ensemble of women in the midst of their mandatory two years in the Israeli Defense Forces as NCOs (Non-Combat Officers), based on Lavie’s own experience in service. Daffi (Nelly Tagar) is a Paper and Shredder NCO – which is exactly what it sounds like – who is desperately bored and dreams of being reassigned to the glamorous city of Tel Aviv, hopeful that her incessant requests for transfer will pay off; Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is the deadpan class clown of the NCOs who will do whatever it takes to avoid actual work, and whatever punishment she earns for acting out always seems to be worth the joke. Zohar and Daffi are chums, the kind who save each other seats on the bus and spend most of their time trying to beat each other’s high scores on the office computer’s Minesweeper game. Rama (Shani Klein) is closest to the ‘straight man’ of the cast as the team’s ambitious supervisor and only woman in the ranks of leading officers, committed to advancing her career and making a difference in the world.
Although Rama is the character least engaged with the hysterical mess of the primary plot, much of Zero Motivation’s gender commentary comes from her scenes, starting with the first pan across a room of commanding officers as one man tells a gay joke and everyone laughs—except Rama, with her eyes on the table (trying desperately not to roll) as she waits for the meeting to start.
As one of the only characters who takes her job seriously, Rama gets most of the audience’s sympathy as well, as the other girls’ petty shenanigans continually get in the way of her attempts to show leadership and earn a promotion. Portraits of Margaret Thatcher and other female world leaders line her office, and at the end of Zero Motivation she’s shown carrying around a book titled Women Who Changed the World; she’s no less cartoonish than the other girls, but clearly the one we’re supposed to root for, despite her storyline’s somewhat marginal status compared to Daffi and Zohar’s – a focus, or lack of, which is undoubtedly intentional.
Each woman’s motivation is obvious from the outset: Daffi wants out, Zohar wants someone to goof off with, and Rama wants to motivate her team to make herself look good. Character development is not a priority here; indeed, I would say none of the soldiers change significantly in any way by the end, with the exception of minor realizations which do little to affect their behavior. The simplicity of these characters is not a flaw by any means, though.
While they could have easily become flat caricatures or stock representations of various ‘types of women’ in the hands of some other director, Lavie makes sure they all somehow feel full and relatable – even the pair of high-energy, pop-song-obsessed HR girls (who, like Rama, actually do their jobs), or wry, nihilist Russian soldier Irena (Tamara Klingon). With the characters’ psychology left fairly straightforward, however, there’s plenty of room for things to get weird without sacrificing any comedic face-value.
“I see the ghost had no effect on your crappy personality.”
And, man, do things get weird. The darkness of this dark comedy becomes apparent shockingly early on (this is where my Coen Bros. senses kicked in), when a case of mistaken identity and a summer crush comes to a head with a bloody death in the first 20 minutes. The comic side of this darkness comes when Rama briefs her team on the situation and Daffi breaks into hysterical sobs – not because a girl has died, but because she believed the girl was her replacement, and she’s not being transferred to Tel Aviv, after all. (See the Veep episode “Mother” for more public crying that turns out to be completely and hilariously selfish.)
In a further turn of weirdness, the dead girl continues to haunt the NCOs and possibly possesses Irena until she avenges the men who have hurt her in the past – at least, that’s Zohar’s theory as to why Irena starts behaving strangely after sleeping in the bed where the girl died. (Incidentally, Klingon’s performance in this part of the movie makes for some of its funniest moments.)
Does it matter why, though? I don’t think so. Some reviews of Zero Motivation when it came out claim the slight bend into Lynchian absurdism in the second part of the film doesn’t quite work, but what makes it Lynchian and absurd is that it doesn’t care what audiences think; it’s just happening, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“There’s a war on. Get a grip.”
Part of this movie’s darkness, too, comes from what may be a subtle take on perceptions of mental health. There’s not a single period joke in this script (and I really can’t overstate the value of this pleasantly surprising absence enough), but there are plenty of winks towards the other (in most cases, totally valid!) medical reasons, perhaps sometimes stretched and used as excuses, to get out of something we don’t want to do, or don’t feel capable of doing. The thing of it is, and I think what Lavie is trying to illustrate, though, is it’s impossible to determine for yourself who has “real” problems and who is, maybe, pushing it, or even faking it.
“The ghost thing is a stroke of genius,” Zohar whispers in awe as the team deals with the aftermath of the dead girl’s haunting with an awake yet unresponsive Irena (who seems to be legitimately traumatized, wandering around in a blank trance). Zohar, thinking the whole thing is an act to get out of working because it’s something she or Daffi would do, even uses Irena’s comatose state to her advantage, offering to take her to the infirmary so she can instead meet a soldier in the canteen and, ideally, lose her virginity.
Daffi, of course, embodies the extreme example of someone exaggerating emotional despair in an effort to get what she wants, threatening to kill herself with various office supplies so her fellow soldiers will have to report it and she can convince her commanders to let her transfer. Everyone can see through the excessive tears that her real issue is simply whiny, tragic boredom, but Daffi remains utterly committed to the idea that Tel Aviv will make life worth living again until the very end.
Put Daffi’s over-the-top melodrama and Zohar’s petulant apathy side-by-side with Irena and the girl who haunts her, and you have a perfectly hilarious yet somehow sensitive portrait of a world full of perceived absurdity and reality, the admission that it’s different for everyone, and that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two (if possible at all). Although it’s entirely conceivable that bringing attention to mental health issues wasn’t part of Lavie’s goal here, I think it’s fairly remarkable to see a movie this funny (and often ridiculous) take on such real, cerebral human concerns and maintain the balance between light and dark so effortlessly. That the girls need to be constantly reminded that there’s actually a war going on and soldiers are starving and dying as they speak puts all their ideas of horror in an even bigger yet distant perspective, reminding audiences that even hell is relative.
The movie plays with equal nuance and silliness in its depiction of the ways we go unhinged, whether it be by sheer boredom, an unavoidable presence, or unfillable absence. I’m still not entirely sure what Lavie’s ultimate thesis is here, but I also don’t care. Zero Motivation is simultaneously funny, serious, sentimental, sarcastic, slapstick, and totally unique. One benefit of seeing the film multiple times is noticing just how strictly it adheres to the basic rule of short stories – mention no detail that won’t come up again – and how succinctly connected each of the plot-lines are.
The influence of sitcom structure, literature, and absurdist surrealism in Lavie’s storytelling are felt at every turn, and the 100-minute, three-chapter narrative that results is a sharp, concise depiction of the relationships between friends and coworkers, presence and absence, tedium and purpose, comedy and tragedy…It’s the kind of movie that reminds me of all my favorite things, yet I can’t think of anything else quite like it.
What are your favorite comedies led by women? Let us know in the comments below!
Zero Motivation is now streaming on Fandor and available to rent on Amazon.