Movie review: 'Walk on Water'

2½ stars (out of 4)

A good way to start a story is to find characters and see how their lives—and therefore the plot—unfurls naturally from the kinds of choices they make. Good novelists often talk about "getting out of the way" and listening to what their characters want to say and do.

A trickier way is to come up with a social issue, or an opinion, and then try to build a story around it. That can work (see "Animal Farm"), but if the storyteller isn't careful the characters can feel like pawns—and although the audience might come away feeling educated, they might not be moved.

This appears to be how filmmakers/life partners Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky came to make "Walk on Water," in which a macho Israeli assassin falls in with two sparkly, laid-back German descendants of a Nazi war criminal.

It's a premise rich with potential for cross-cultural discovery (for both the characters and us), from what kind of music Israeli radio stations play after a suicide bombing to earnest discussions about which nationalities are circumcised. But we almost always feel the well-intentioned hands of Fox and Uchovsky—who directed and produced (respectively) 2002's "Yossi & Jagger," a film about gay love in the Israeli military—guiding the plot.

Fox, the director, has said that "because Israelis are still so obsessed with the Holocaust and their status as victims it makes them blind to the fact they themselves have become aggressors, imposing pain and suffering on the Palestinians."

So we get a brooding Israeli named Eyal (played by Clive Owen look-alike Lior Ashkenazi), an agent with Mossad, the Israeli secret service, whose latest mission is to pose as a tour guide for a German visitor named Axel (Knut Berger).

Axel has come to visit his sister Pia (Caroline Peters), a tan, loose-limbed girl who lives on a kibbutz, and its Eyal's job to secretly tape the siblings' conversations so he can find their grandfather, a Nazi war criminal last seen in South America. The old Nazi is on his last gasp but Eyal has a laughably overdone-sounding directive to "get to him before God does."

If Eyal is an extreme embodiment of the arrogant, emotionallyclosed Israeli man who despises Palestinians, then Axel and Pia are his goofy, open-faced and zealously cheerful German foils. Together they tour Israel's sights—kibbutz, gay nightclub, Sea of Galilee, touristy marketplace. Though the film is one part road trip, it's hard to shake the feeling that the destinations, like the soundtrack (overly fond of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"), are part of a bursting checklist of things the filmmakers wanted to share with the audience: "Dead Sea mudbath? Check! Scene where Eyal kicks some butt? Check! Discussion about how Jews feel paranoid when they visit Germany? Check!"

Despite the film's pat plot turns and instructional tone (and memorably grating lip-synch number), there are moments of charm, thanks to the fetching, committed cast. Together, Ashkenazi and Berger pull off some genuine male bonding via their intermittently mawkish chats. When the script isn't trying to push buttons, the two actors are encouraged to transcend their divergent stereotypes, such as in a pitch-perfect scene where Eyal translates the lyrics of an Israeli love song. The backdrop of Israeli and German locales make for a welcome travelogue, too.

In the end, you have to admire Fox and Uchovsky for trying to broach subjects that so many people think about but rarely express. They may have tried—unsuccessfully—to wedge them into an international thriller, but their enthusiasm is such that, even when "Walk on Water" doesn't quite have you by the heart, its little fingers fumble around in your brain.

ctc-Friday@tribune.com

"Walk on Water"

Directed by Eytan Fox; written by Gal Uchovsky; photographed by Tobias Hochstein; edited by Yosef Grunfeld; production designed by Avi Fahima and Christoph Merg; music by Ivri Lider; produced by Amir Harel and Uchovsky. In English, German and Hebrew with English subtitles. A Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:44. No MPAA rating.Eyal - Lior Ashkenazi
Axel Himmelman - Knut Berger
Pia Himmelman - Carolina Peters
Menachem - Gidon Shemer

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