Steve Allen’s famous equation, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” is seriously stretched in “The Farewell Party,” a darker-than-dark Israeli comedy about old people seeking “death with dignity.”
The deaths are sad, gripping affairs, the terminally ill and terminally old seeking an end to the pain, the ever-shrinking horizons of a life confined to a hospital bed and the indignities that come with that. But the laughs sneak in before the corpses turn cold.
Veteran character actor Ze’ev Revach (“The Quest,” and the Israeli Oscar submission “Gett”) is Yehezkel, an inventor/tinkerer who uses gadgets to call his elderly friend Zelda and, in an echoing booming voice of God, tell her “there’s no vacancy” in Heaven. So she needs to hang on, submit to more cancer treatment.
But this playful old man has end of life burdens as well. His wife, Levana (Levana Finkelstein) is fading away with Alzheimer’s.
And their friend, Max, begs Yehezkel to help him end it. Max’s wife Yana (Aliza Rosen) is more insistent and more shrill, raging at a medical establishment bent on “keeping him alive, as though dying is a crime.”
They ask around. An elderly doctor rebuffs them, but another (Ilan Dar) says “Sure, I’ve done this many times.”
Turns out Dr. Daniel is a veterinarian. Turns out he’s gay. And it turns out he’s got a friend, Raffi, the gruff retired cop (Raffi Tavor) willing to give these “idiots” the spine to do the deed.
The tinkerer in their ranks, Yehezkel, cooks up a device that seems copied from America’s Dr. Death. It puts the patient’s fate into his or her own hands.
And before you can say “Kevorkian,” sad, broken old people in kibbutz hospitals are lining up for their help. Each case is heartbreaking, each death somber.
But the way Yehezkel & Co. get caught by the same cop for various traffic violations as they flee the scene of each “crime” revives the comic undertone.
And the spreading conspiracy — there is a world of over-cared-for 80 and 90 year olds ready to leave Israel for Zion — has an amusing edge.
The performers, working in Hebrew (with English subtitles), make their characters empathetic, emphatic, human and humane. The clash of tones doesn’t always work, but from its title to the closing credits, “The Farewell Party” does a nice job of reminding us that people who have lived as adults for the better part of a century are certainly entitled to control their own fate when the end is within their fading sight.
Cast: Ze’ev Revach, Levana Finkelstein, Aliza Rosen, Ilan Dar, Raffi Tavor
Credits: Written and directed by Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:32