"Nothing is nice," says the old man at the center of Israeli comedy-drama Footnote. It's a statement that could summarize the troubles of a father and son dealing with the tensions of expectations in family and career.
Writer-director Joseph Cedar introduces us to Talmudic scholars Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar Aba) and his son Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi), two men in implicit competition. In his declining years and his own sense of superiority, the sour Eliezer resents the success of his son the pop academician, who has effectively supplanted the father. Meanwhile, the internationally renowned Uriel keenly realizes he can never win the approval of his father, whose glory has been cruelly denied by fate. Decades of research amounted to nothing more than a footnote when Eliezer's work wound up moot in the light of a competitor's chance discovery and rapid publication.
Cedar launches the story by injecting a farcical element. Eliezer has long coveted the Israel Prize in recognition of his unjustly ignored lifelong labor, and while Uriel has been a popular choice for some years, he has dutifully removed his name from consideration in deference to his father. In a miraculous turn of events, Eliezer finally gets the call: he has won the Israel Prize. Shortly thereafter, a baffled Uriel gets his own call, explaining that the win was a clerical error: the Prize was meant for Uriel.
This knowledge touches off a moral dilemma for Uriel even as his suddenly pleased-as-punch father reaches new heights of insufferableness. "There are things more important than the truth," Uriel insists. Still, it's complicated. Uriel finds himself at one point charged with penning—and parsing—the language of his father's citation. Knowing the truth and harboring his own resentments against his father, the son reconsiders the word "greatness," erasing it even as, across town, his petty father criticizes him to a happily muckraking journalist.
Obviously, Footnote is largely concerned with the prickliness and delicacy around legacy, and the attendant patrilineal complications (Uriel, too, has a son he says he's nearly ready to "give up on"). But it's as much about the egotism and dysfunction of academia, reflected in the complex personalities of Eliezer and Uriel.
Touchy, grumpy Eliezer has succumbed to defining himself in reaction to his reputation (Uriel also runs into intimations of never-revealed sins of the father), and he doesn't wear his newfound swagger well. Uriel, meanwhile, is an essentially nice guy marred by swelled-head self-satisfaction and neediness (as a colleague says, "He expects a kind of constant mild flattery").
Footnote ends not with a bang but with a whimper, a brave if dissatisfying choice that's no doubt truer to life than the emotional or farcical crescendo audiences will be craving. On the way there, there's enough whimsy and wit to earn comic credentials, and brilliant character work from Aba and Ashkenazi that's alone worth the price of admission.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]