Humor is often used to get a serious point across. Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon, the writers and directors of the Israeli import “The Farewell Party,” employ comedy to address the moral issues surrounding euthanasia. Some will enjoy the frequent dollops of honey, but many viewers will find the enterprise cloying. The trouble with “The Farewell Party” is not the filmmakers’ important message about the desire so many terminally ill people have to die with dignity, but rather the obvious manner in which it is delivered.
In an assisted living facility in Jerusalem, Max (Shmuel Wolf), who is terminally ill, asks his friend Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) to help him die. They turn to Dr. Daniel (Ilan Dar), a veterinarian who has access to drugs that can help Max peacefully slip away. Yehezkel, a tinkerer, creates a mercy-killing machine that allows Max to inject the lethal drugs into his own system, and Raffi Segal (Raffi Tavor), a friend of Dr. Daniel’s, helps destroy the evidence. Yehezkel’s wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein), is the lone voice of dissent, accusing them all of murder.
The euthanasia plot that binds these characters together — as others in the facility learn of Max’s death at the hands of Yehezkel’s device, they are in high demand — brings to light secrets these character have. Levana suffers from dementia, which her loving husband Yehezkel goes to great lengths to cover up. The vet and his married friend Raffi are sleeping together on the down low — something we learn when Raffi is discovered naked in Dr. Daniel’s closet, in the film’s clunkiest metaphor. When Dr. Daniel, who like the rest of the characters is elderly, asks his friends to be discreet about this secret, he explains, “My mother doesn’t know.”
“The Farewell Party” tries too hard. When Yehazkel is pulled over by a cop for speeding, it’s meant to create suspense about whether the gang will be caught. This soon becomes a running joke that is heavy-handed and unfunny.
One evening, Levana arrives naked to dinner at the senior facility, and Yehezkel and Max’s widow Yana (Aliza Rozen) try to assuage her humiliation by having all their friends gather in the greenhouse without their clothes as well. They are discovered and reprimanded by an administrator, in a moment intended to emphasize that they have become outlaws at odds with authority. This moral dimension is addressed more effectively, however, when they face blackmail threats from a man who is demanding their help with his own suicide.
“The Farewell Party,” for the most part, avoids overly grappling with the ethical quandaries of euthanasia in favor of a mild dark humor, a choice that diminishes its impact. Levana poses the only tough questions in the film, and her authority in objecting is undermined when her visit to a depressing nursing home sparks a change of heart about mercy killing.
In fact, it is Levana’s dementia — rather than euthanasia — that becomes the most compelling issue raised by the film. There is real poignancy when she describes “disappearing” as her mind starts to fade and she pleads for loved ones to remember her other than how she appears in a hospital bed. Even here, though, the filmmakers gild the lily, showing her decline by having her use salt instead of sugar as she bakes cookies and eat out a trashcan. In the end, her dementia seems to be a device to jerk tears and reinforce the case for euthanasia.
Still, Levana Finkelshtein gives a commendable performance as a woman slowly losing her mental faculties. Even when her face is vacantly staring off in the distance, the effect is moving.
Granit and Moymon clearly aimed for a crowd-pleasing film, but they might better have made a more thoughtful or impassioned one — which in the end might have proved funnier. At points, depictions of aging and of homosexuality are so superficial as to be insulting.
Halfway through “The Farewell Party,” the characters perform a song about life, death, and “Neverland,” a sequence that will charm some viewers. Even at this intermediate point in the film, however, for others it will be too little too late.
THE FAREWELL PARTY | Directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon | Samuel Goldwyn Films | In Hebrew with English subtitles | Opens May 22 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafi