“Sublet” is an American in Tel Aviv story, a laid-back travelogue about a travel writer who visits the city for a “five days in” article, and gets more than he bargained — or embracing the local custom — haggled for.
John Benjamin Hickey (“The Good Wife,” “Mapplethorpe”) gives a not-quite-fussbudget air to Michael, a veteran traveler who takes a sublet rather than checking into a hotel, because that’s the quickest way to immerse yourself in a place. He instantly regrets the decision.
Tomer (Israeli newcomer Niv Nissim) gets the days he’s renting the place wrong. He’s a student, a filmmaker and a slovenly housekeeper. But he begs Michael to keep the bargain, and here we are — a gay, middle-aged and married travel writer tucked into a “hip, hot” neighborhood, with a young, gay horror movie maker as his tour guide.
Tomer reflects the way director and co-writer Eytan Fox wants Tel Aviv to come off — ever so laid back. He shows off the beach, the cafes, treelined streets filled with student-age kids and the occasional tourist. Tomer takes Michael to a nightclub and on a train ride “home” to visit his mother (Miki Kim) in a kibbutz.
We never see any IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers. It’s easy to be “laid back” when that part of Israeli life is erased from the story. The only stresses are of a minor melodramatic nature — a dancer friend (Lihi Kornowksi) has love life troubles, Tomer has commitment issues and darn it all, his bike is stolen. Again.
His reaction to the stolen bike, which turns up exactly where he expects — a local Palestinian-run second-hand bike shop — sets the tone. He won’t rat them out to the police “because the cops around here are racist,” and would put the man out of business. He’s young and tolerant and given to making patronizing, ageist cracks at Michael’s expense, almost from the start.
“It’s very unoriginal to be a gay man who loves musicals!”
Tomer makes “artistic horror” movies, which he shares with Michael, dreams, like many of his young countrymen, of moving to Berlin, which surprises Michael, it being “a place that symbolizes Jewish tragedy.” Tomer and dancer Daria have a good laugh at that. They’re not listening to the Middle Aged American who says “I hate to be the guy who says, ‘When I was your age…'”
The handsome student is the very embodiment of how he describes the average Israeli’s attitude towards Western tourists. “They just want you to like them…We’re in the Middle East, but want to be a part of the West.”
“Sublet” has an easy-going charm right up to the moments when a little “edge” is finally jammed in. A brutally off-key introduction to “Israel’s version of Grindr” is as abrupt as the as the third act turns in the story are utterly predictable and eye rolling.
If this was a heterosexual romance playing this game it’d be hooted right off the screen.
Yet the light and lightly-unsettling charms of “Sublet” win you over, even if you suspect that Fox has merely added a sexual edge to atone for the political and ethnic strife he’s taken care to avoid.
MPA Rating: unrated, sex, nudity, smoking, profanity
Cast: John Benjamin Hickey, Niv Nissim, Lihi Kornowski and Miki Kim
Credits: Directed by Eytan Fox, script by Eytan Fox and Itay Segal. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:27