Everyone seems to know that there is a war raging somewhere, but with the exception of a single scene when it is mentioned, none of the soldiers of Zero Motivation feel much concern for the jobs they are performing on a military base in the middle of nowhere. They’re just doing what they’re doing because they’ve been conscripted for mandatory Israeli military service. While they may not be in college like most people their age, the characters go through all the struggles young adults in any society endure: getting jobs, finding love, and avoiding possession by ghosts.
The debut film of director Talya Levie, Zero Motivation is remarkable for all the unconventional approaches it takes to storytelling and characterization. Despite its military setting, virtually all the important characters are women, while the men occupy mostly peripheral roles. While it’s difficult enough to find movies where the majority of the cast is women, telling the story of women in the military makes Zero Motivation a very rare film. In a further deviation from the typical military movie, no anti-war message appears. Instead, the movie focuses on the deadliness of boredom and the experience of holding a pointless job, making sure that it has more in common with The Office and Adventureland than Waltz With Bashir or All Quiet On The Western Front.
Divided into three acts, the film stars Dana Ivgy as Zohar, the possible love child of Yossarian and Sarah Silverman. Assigned to deadening clerical work on a no-name base, Zohar holds the title of “Mail NCO” while her daffy best friend Daffi is “Paper and Shredding NCO”. When she’s not bantering with her overbearing boss Rama or deliberately avoiding doing work, Zohar is working on becoming world champion of Minesweeper and Solitaire, using those games as the only refuge for preserving her sanity in an environment that resembles Mean Girls and Full Metal Jacket mashed together. For her part, Daffi is trying to do everything to get transferred to the more cosmopolitan army base in Tel Aviv, writing letters to every bigwig in the Israeli Defense Forces for a chance at leaving.
The chief sources of comedy for Zero Motivation are universal ones; the soul-crushing pointlessness of office jobs, the drive to lose one’s virginity and have a romantic relationship, and the unpredictability of life all are in included in the movie’s comedic radar. Zohar is desperate to shed her reputation as the only virgin on the base, and a recent suicide leads to one soldier being possessed by a ghost. The absurdity of the situation can occasionally be too much to take in, but it is up to the individual viewer to decide what is real and what is fake. By avoiding taking any specific stances on politics or war, the movie makes itself highly relevant to young people living and growing up in any society, and has a mature sense of humor that few other films can match.
This is a movie full of fresh ideas, and it explores its topics with consistent wit and righteous fury. Few movies can move so quickly from an attempted rape to a hysterical punishment of the rapist and a spontaneous exorcism of a vengeful spirit, but this movie somehow manages to do it. Jewish culture, religion, and history are incorporated smartly and smoothly to build the humor and drama. I’ve read that many subtler tidbits about Israeli and Jewish life will be lost on viewers who aren’t Israeli or Jewish, but nothing in this movie is too obscure or strange to prevent appreciation of the plot.
The transitions between the three acts are awkward, and make the entire movie feel like three stories instead of one cohesive story. Daffi mostly disappears during the second act and returns for the third act in a manner that could have been smoother, but her reappearance is the catalyst for the film’s most hilarious and biting twists and turns. After completing officer training and taking a much less lenient stance on Zohar’s laziness, Daffi ends up waging a guerilla war in the office against Zohar involving staple guns, a battle that features the funniest and craziest use of white-collar work equipment since the computer smashing scene in Office Space. The subsequent punishment and resolution for the two soldiers packs unbelievable amounts of irony and takes black humor to new heights. In its own subversive way, the movie concludes on a rather positive, if open-ended, note, and we wish we could continue to follow the protagonists on more misadventures. However, their military service is over, and another chapter in their lives is in full swing, making for some bittersweet sensations.
Zero Motivation suffers from some inconsistent balances in humorous and serious moments. It can be a roller coaster of emotions to immediately go from events like suicide and rape to jokes about shredding all the office records and deleting all the computer files, but the movie still makes plenty of sharp observations about weird aspects of life in the workplace and Despite its ostensibly unusual setting, audiences in any country can relate to the struggles of its characters and the lessons they learn. Life everywhere can be cruel, dull, or stupid, but pulling pranks and playing video games will always make things better.