A cringe-worthy, unfunny, tonally confused bore.
Director Eran Riklis awkwardly sets a breezy odd-couple road trip movie under the dark cloud of the Israeli-Arab conflict in Zaytoun. The extreme polarity Riklis’ heavy-handed, inappropriately silly humor and the horrifying depictions of the 1982 war in Lebanon in which the story is set cancel each other out and leave nothing but a cringe-worthy, unfunny, tonally confused bore.
A miscast Stephen Dorff (who is much better in the upcoming The Motel Life) plays Yoni, a scruffy, cunning Israeli pilot who’s been downed across enemy lines, right into the hands of the PLO. Among Yoni’s captors is a 12-year-old boy with a giant chip on his shoulder named Fahed (a promising Abdallah El Akal), whose father’s just been killed in the streets, caught in crossfire. Fahed proposes a deal–he helps Yoni escape, and in return, Yoni escorts him to the home of his ancestors, where he can plant his father’s olive tree.
Predictably, the two warm up to each other over the course of their treacherous trek, but the bond doesn’t feel earned or convincing. In fact, the formation of their friendship seems virtually untraceable: They’re casting evil glares at each other one minute. Blink. All of a sudden, they’re hugging and yucking it up like they’re old pals, out of the blue. Where the hell did that come from? I thought you hated that guy! Fahed, you shot him just a few days ago for goodness sake! Their relationship just doesn’t develop organically enough to buy into.
Dorff and El Akal make the best with what they’re given, and even make a handful of sloppily-written scenes work that shouldn’t; a sequence involving a minefield is utterly absurd, but the actors’ performances sell the suspense.
Zaytoun’s most glaring issue is its schizophrenic shifts in mood and tone. It darts around in a frenzy, wanting to be a gaggy comedy, master-pupil story, fun action movie, gritty action movie, and Hollywood heart-toucher (especially in the finale), all at once. Its conceit is confused, and so are we.
In one of many grim depictions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, we see Fahed sprint across a road in Lebanon, the deafening sound of gunfire echoing in the night, to kneel next to his father, whose body’s been mutilated after just being killed in an explosion. It’s harrowing. Not much later, we see Fahed sharing a taxi with Yoni and an awful comic-relief cab driver who blasts the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” (seriously?) as he spouts idiotic one-liners. The humor is a big miss, just like every other joke in the movie, because the looming presence of the terrible war raging around them makes the comedy feel inappropriate and tasteless. It’s possible to make humor work under the weight of war, but it requires more finesse and tact than Riklis and penner Nader Rizq exhibit.
Visually, Zaytoun looks quite nice, even poetic at times. DP Dan Lausten photographs the majestic Israeli locales wonderfully, and despite the cloying sentimentality of Fahed and Yoni’s friendship, their picturesque surroundings impart their journey with a subtle, poetic sense of serenity that wouldn’t be there otherwise.