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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Tel Aviv': Journey to a Strange Los Angeles

“Tel Aviv-Los Angeles” (opening today at Monica 4-Plex for one week) isn’t really a good movie, but there’s something fascinating about its outsider’s perspective on Los Angeles.

The movie’s hero is a frustrated Israeli comedian, who comes to the United States on tour and stays to dally with a producer’s wife and hit it big. Like “El Norte,” “Tel Aviv-Los Angeles” shows us our own culture from a foreigner’s perspective. Modi Gazit (Dudu Topaz) sees Los Angeles as a sterile smog-and-sun-drenched arena, full of hustlers, lies and illusions.

So far, so good. It’s a both a sarcastic movie and a sentimental one. For Modi and for director Shmuel Imberman, Israel is what America was supposed to be: the Land of Opportunity. When Modi finally plays for an audience of Israeli army conscripts, he tells them, eyes brimming, “This is America!”

Star-scenarist Topaz is one of Israel’s most successful comics. Though he isn’t necessarily being semi-autobiographical, he may be indulging some reverse wish-fulfillment. And Imberman shoots in a big, bright emphatic style that suggests an infatuation with some of the targets of his criticism: U.S. movies. Indeed, Modi gains his initial fame through a gimmick that recalls Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy": He disrupts an Israeli TV show, slicing the comic-host’s clothes to ribbons.

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Later, in the fable-like structure, the guerrilla clown is swept into a false, glittering L.A. world of limousines, naked ladies in Jacuzzis, and deal-making soirees. He becomes a patsy and pool-side lap-dog gigolo. Left behind is his staunch girlfriend, who’s been conscripted into the army, his heart-of-gold agent and his homeland, robbed of their best comic by Bel-Air and its barbecues.

There are problems here. Dudu Topaz is a big, shiny, magnetic guy, but his comic routines don’t translate well. (Is it the subtitling?) Audiences in the film roar with laughter at jokes that often seem the comedic equivalent of Rich Little in a yarmulke.

And how is Modi ever going to succeed without really learning English? The Los Angeles we watch is weirdly circumscribed. Topaz’s show is staged at the Los Feliz, he gets mugged on Hollywood Boulevard and almost everyone he meets, except the cabdrivers and the muggers, speaks Hebrew. In the film’s morality, good Jews all want to return to Israel; the bad or corrupted have pools and Jacuzzis and snort cocaine through $100 bills. There’s no happy medium shown here, not even on Fairfax Avenue.

Imberman (“I Don’t Give a Damn”) is a film maker who’s willing to examine society, to present morally flawed heroes. There’s some irony in his and Topaz’s approach: Modi’s attitudes are keyed by his reaction to L.A. blacks, and some of the Hollywood Israelis view his political irreverence as disloyal. But “Tel Aviv-Los Angeles” (Times rated: Mature for sex, nudity and language), like many other inverted fairy tales, gives you less a real portrait than the reversal of a false one. There are moments, despite your best sympathies, when your reaction to Modi’s Journey is: “This is America?”

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