The thing about hating your job and not giving a shit is that it can happen to anyone, anytime — it might even explain the longueurs late in most two-term presidencies. In Talya Lavie's bored, biting comedy Zero Motivation, aggrieved ennui hits right in the heart of the Intifada.
Not that war ever touches the go-nowhere days depicted here. Conscripted Israeli BFFs Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are over it all in ways we immediately recognize, from the movies and from life: They're young folks tasked with meaningless work by authority too clueless to catch all the jokes spitballed at it. Officer Rama (Shani Klein) browbeats her Minesweeper-playing subordinates to stop giggling and take care of their office busywork. Flustered, early on, Rama demands that the pals remove a stain from her fatigues; Zohar, in the spirit of literalist anti-establishment cranks dating back to MASH-era Elliott Gould or even the Marx Brothers, performs the lowly task to the letter: She scissors the offending spot away.
Of course, that's not exactly funny, which is why Zero Motivation proves something more than a piercing army/office comedy. (Daffi and Zohar are stuck on base, in administration, handling mail and shredding documents.) For those of us in the real world, comic literalist prank-playing do-nothings just make work worse for everyone else. Zohar, played with bristling hurt feelings by the nerved-up Ivgy, can make us laugh when she sasses back at Rama or complains about male superiors checking out her ass, but she just as often makes us sigh, wince, and wish she would learn to handle the drudgery everyone else accepts. She's funny not because she's a comedian, like Bill Murray's charismatic smartass in Stripes, but because she takes the slights of this world so personally that we laugh in anticipation of how she'll lash at the next sting. That's what makes her moving, too. Zero Motivation opens as bleak, rebellious comedy but grows into a smart and moving story of entering adulthood.
Much of Lavie's film illuminates the horribleness not of bosses but of Murray-types. But it's also a strong and empathetic ensemble comedy, one that contrasts the drab desert misery of life at the Shizafon army base with the faces of the women working and living with Daffi and Zohar. Lavie endows each character with full, rare humanity, including Zohar's hopeful, hapless supervisor, Rama — and even the male soldier whose attempted rape of one of the women results in a protracted scene of his nude humiliation. (This is a world away from Sally Kellerman's treatment in MASH.) That bit is funny, but it follows moments of matter-of-fact sexual horror, filmed with an unsparing flatness; throughout Zero Motivation, writer/director Lavie pulls off such daring tonal shifts. Her heroines slump through days of dull longing, aimless rebellion, random tragedies, surprise betrayals, and even more surprising kindnesses.
By the final third, one of her two leads has learned a lesson that the slob-heroes of Office Space and the like never pick up: that mastering a nonsensical bureaucracy is a more likely escape than railing against it. But, wonderfully, that bit of wisdom builds to an all-out rumble involving office-supply weapons. It's a modern pie-fight, utterly ridiculous, staged with bravura recklessness, but it also feels true, somehow moving. Zohar and Daffi finally find something to fight for: whether or not it's acceptable to give a shit.