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‘Zero Motivation’: Israeli military gags that seldom hit the mark

“Zero Motivation” is a title just asking for a comeback. It is meant to describe the comic ennui of Israeli soldiers who shred paper and serve coffee at a boring desert base. This human resources lingo fits the feature debut of Talya Lavie.

The writer-director interviewed young women in uniform about military life, drawing on what she endured during her two years as a secretary in the Israeli Defense Forces. Without much motive, Lavie has lengthened “The Substitute,” her 19-minute thesis short from 2006.

The plot stays the same, with incidents and characters added: Daffi (Nelly Tagar) desperately seeks a transfer to Tel Aviv; Zohar (Dana Ivgy) possessively spoils her best friend’s escape plans, and Rama (Shani Klein) will never get promoted. Blame the slackers under her command. The suicide of an imposter soldier on her watch is no career-booster either.

The office comedy is weak. The gross-out gags are too safe. A covert lesbian crush is underused. Eager to lose her virginity, one NCO needs rescuing from a gung-ho comrade in arms. Sober notes of drama smack of mediocre television. Immature characters upset over Minesweeper game scores do not amuse or matter. Lavie is unmoved to mock army life except for one Kafka quip.

Hard to believe, but “Zero Motivation” won six of what are informally known as Israel’s Academy Awards. Beside the star of “Or (My Treasure),” Lavie got the cinematographer from “Bethlehem” and “Yossi & Jagger,” and the editor of “Lebanon” and “The Band’s Visit.” Those Israeli features far surpass this one.

One line, I admit, made me laugh. At a training exercise on issuing the order “Halt or I will shoot,” an impudent soldier asks what she is to do if the person halts.

[s3r star=2/4]

Zeitgeist Films presents a film written and directed by Talya Lavie. In Hebrew with English subtitles. Running time: 101 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.