Film Review: Cupcakes

Cupcakes

Jessica Mauboy’s performance during the interval of the second of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest semi finals is emblematic of Australia’s longstanding outside interest in the musical extravaganza, and their unspoken desire to join in with the geographically-bound competition (although, yes, the Euro has been flexible enough to include some Asian and African countries on occasion). In Eytan Fox’s genial Israeli comedy Cupcakes, trademarks have forced a barely-disguised re-imagining to a contest called UniverSong. The way forward, perhaps? Particularly with Israel’s surprise failure to qualify last night with an appealingly modern entry…

Hopefully they’d be able to afford better sets, though, because while the geography might be bigger (though not really utilised; it really is a veiled reproduction of Eurovision, with Russia the only other country getting a look-in), the contest itself seems to have shrunk to the type of thing that only takes place in a rundown county ballroom. Budget restrictions ahoy; in Cupcakes, the cheap comes with the cheerful, and, a little like Eurovision itself, a willing audience member has to accept that the entertainment is bound to be a little gaudy.

Cupcakes‘ strengths lie in its characters and its engagingly thoughtful narrative. Fox has form as a sober, perceptive filmmaker in his feature Yossi & Jagger and its recent sequel Yossi, and he retains that somewhat melancholy emotionality even through the sparkle of his narrative here. Six friendly neighbours – one guy, five girls, in a refreshing inversion of the standard cinematic gender imbalance – gather to watch this year’s UniverSong, but even Ofer’s (Ofer Shechter) enthusiasm for the latest auto-tuned entry quickly dissipates. Anat (Anat Waxman) is more concerned with her husband’s abandonment, provoking an impromptu, consolatory sing-song from the group.

Before you know it, the cameraphone recording of the number lands the group with the unlikely appointment as Israel’s next UniverSong entrants. Fox uses this fun, simple narrative set-up to provoke questions of identity – ‘we usually tell ourselves ‘no’,’ laments Keren (Keren Berger), our infrequent narrator through the medium of her blog posts. Everyday commitments of work, family, propriety and the like have to be worked through by the six, each a clear individual and sympathetically, brightly performed by the sparkling cast. It’s hardly revolutionary stuff, but Fox handles it with a generous pensive hand, not above letting tinges of darkness shade the edges of what could have been a parade of rainbow flags.

It’s a shame, then, that the film’s depiction of the multinational song contest is rather muddled. ‘Some people still get off on it,’ says one derisory voice early in the film, and initially this is a view that the film wants to dismiss. But the committee for the Israeli entry tries to dress the song up in colour-coordinated outfits, synthy production and cheesy dance routines, and the reaction from the group is predictably despondent.

They detach from the committee and do it on their own terms, producing a song that is sweet, winsome and catchy – the Scissor Sisters’ BabyDaddy was on-hand to assist with the songcraft – but is snobbishly held above the cheesy Russian entry, helmed by a winkingly camp man who Ofer is amused to find is married to his female dancer. The group all sit off to the side during a ‘getting to know you’ party, alienated from the colourful array of fake people they see before them. There’s the whiff of that familiar snide attitude many people hold with regard to Eurovision, and it undermines what is a very sweet and involving comedy.