Over the last decade-plus, Eytan Fox has become one of the foremost chroniclers of modern Israeli life, particularly young, gay Israeli life. His breakthrough with American audiences was 2002’s Yossi & Jagger, the story of a tragic romance between gay soldiers, shot with a minuscule budget on digital video that lent the film a magnificent grit and intimacy. Subsequent films—including The Bubble, Walk On Water, and 2013’s Yossi & Jagger sequel Yossi—have also intertwined queer themes with questions of national identity, in a distinctive low-key, dramatic fashion.
This is the necessary context for describing how Cupcakes opens: a man in bright drag serenading a kindergarten class to the tune of Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The film is a wholly different Fox confection. It’s a big, broad comedy, with music by Scissor Sisters member Babydaddy, parodying that hallmark of imported cheese, Eurovision. But there’s depth and intelligence to this crowd-pleaser. The fun comes not from the pink neon frosting, but from seeing how Fox and co-writer Eli Bijaoui use it to decorate their familiar themes of authenticity, kitsch, and what it means to have progressive pride within a changing country.
The heroes are six neighbors (five women, including one approaching middle age, and one gay man) who eagerly await the annual ritual of “UniverSong,” the European contest where each country hopes their representatives take home the glory. Israel’s own entry is hollowed-out, overproduced, and instantly familiar to anyone who’s watched a Eurovision number. But such matters are forgotten as the group improvises a cheer-up ballad for Anat (Anat Waxman), the oldest, whose husband has just walked out on her. (Gender theorists, take note: It’s implied he resents having to work for the bakery she owns.) Later, the queeny Ofer (Ofer Shechter) secretly enters cell-phone footage of their earnest effort into the following year’s contest, grabbing the attention of government organizers intrigued by the amateur angle. “Sometimes unplanned pregnancies make the most beautiful children,” one explains.
It’s a schmaltzy song, and the process by which everyone comes around to the idea of performing is predictable. So is the manner in which the group later rebels against the government’s attempt to homogenize them as yet another campy electropop production. Why, then, is Cupcakes such an infectious good time? It has a lot to do with the film’s measured tone and clever juxtaposition of creative expression with corporatized kitsch. These friends have permission to share their spontaneous goof with the world, but only if they acquiesce to become laughingstocks first.
Ofer, far from playing a flamboyant stereotype, becomes the film’s emotional center. He wants to show off his sexuality in one way; the contest organizers prefer another. His boyfriend, the son of hummus moguls with the surname “Hummus,” stays in the closet for the good of the family business—even though his family sponsors the contest because it appeals to their brand of “authenticity.” Such identity exploration is present throughout the film, on both personal and national levels: Another group member, Dana (Dana Ivgy), works for Israel’s Minister of Culture, leading to the familiar yet incongruous image of a smiling politician cheering on this group of anti-establishment misfits (within camera’s reach, naturally). And speaking of authenticity, each of the six leads shares a name with the character they play.
Ofer, Anat, and to a lesser extent Dana are the ones running this show. The other band members, including a blogger, a former beauty queen, and an indie singer who despises UniverSong, have less memorable arcs. Such is the reality of an ensemble film, which prefers overstuffed narratives to breathing room. But Fox does make the time for nice technical touches, such as a scene where the team arrives in Paris for the competition, shot through the rainbow-colored sunglasses each character is wearing. It’s a handy visual metaphor for how a bright aesthetic can communicate big ideas about authenticity in culture. Cupcakes begins with campy patriotism, but it ultimately puts both patriotism and camp in the critical spotlight. Perhaps love will keep them together.