A middle-aged gay American travel writer rents an apartment in Tel Aviv from a laid-back film student in Eytan Fox’s formulaic audience-pleaser, “Sublet.” Venturing ever so discreetly into the kind of darker ruminations that marked his best-known films (“Yossi & Jagger,” “Walk on Water”), Fox offers no surprises in this too-neatly packaged midlife-crisis story carefully designed to cater to an older gay demographic. With two screenwriters (including the director) and three script editors credited, it may be a classic “too many cooks” situation, as the whole structure is as risk-free and standardized as a TV film, though newcomer Niv Nissem provides a freshness that papers over the conventionality of it all. Fox’s name recognition and the easy way the film goes down made it a festival success whose popularity will increase once streaming begins.
The first glimpse of Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) arriving in Israel tells everything about the guy: late 50s, blue Oxford shirt, white undershirt, “travel ready” cream-colored jacket. His conservative wardrobe doesn’t change, reflecting his rigidity. This is the kind of guy who thinks he’s doing someone a favor by rearranging their closets and folding their socks. He’s a writer for The New York Times with a column called “The Intrepid Traveler,” which the film’s own writers don’t seem to realize is a misnomer: Michael is anything but intrepid.
When he gets to the apartment he’s renting for five days, he finds the owner Tomer (Nissem) unprepared for his arrival; Michael’s ready to go to a hotel but Tomer admits to really needing the money, so the writer agrees to stay notwithstanding the disorder. The next day, Tomer returns to collect some things and offers to show Michael around after smirking at his list containing only the most touristy locales. Charmed by the younger man’s good looks and spontaneity, Michael suggests Tomer stay in the apartment on the sofa and in exchange for the favor of letting him sleep in his own place, he’ll act as Michael’s guide to the “real” Tel Aviv.
Fox isn’t interested in turning “Sublet” into a tourist board-approved look at the city, and unlike “The Bubble,” he doesn’t bother trying to capture its pulse, making do with a generic shot of a vegetable market and a beach scene. Instead he’s more invested in showing how Tomer’s uncomplicated comfort within himself lightly chips at Michael’s uptight conventionality: In the film’s best scene, Tomer arranges a Grindr hookup with Kobi (Tamir Ginsburg), enjoying the idea of surprising Michael with a three-way. Instead, Michael sits on the sofa, an awkward voyeur in fully-buttoned pajamas; just when the two guys start to enjoy being watched, he retires for the night.
The biggest frustration with “Sublet” is that Fox wants to have it both ways: He wants to mildly stoke his audience’s Daddy-son fantasies yet eliminate any edginess by confirming, even rewarding Michael’s straight-laced conservatism. We’re told Michael is an emotionally scarred warrior from the AIDS battles of the 1980s, partly burned out from that and a recent trauma, but just as his job as travel writer hasn’t expanded his horizons (for him, an American-style muffin will always be a safer bet than local fare), so his past hasn’t generated a carpe diem outlook. His encounter with Tomer ultimately lowers one of the many walls that surrounds him, but there’s plenty of steel plating that uncritically remains, while any transformation for Tomer is teased rather than actual.
Hickey rarely gets the chance to head a film’s cast, which is a shame as he’s a subtle actor who fills in Michael’s troubled melancholy with deeper shades than the script accords. One sees it in the hookup scene, his face registering the slightest of conflicting emotions while inner turmoil unquestionably churns, and then later on when Tomer takes him to his mother’s for dinner, and his recent loss is quietly yet powerfully revealed. The weight of Hickey’s characterization allows Nissem the freedom to express a relaxed and easy liberation from the bonds of the older man’s rigidity, but there’s respect in his big liquid eyes, and the generational contrast between the two personalities is softened by the actors’ rapport. Though “Sublet” never reaches the emotional crescendo of Asaf Avidan’s “Reckoning Song,” heard at the end with its insistent lyric “One day baby, we’ll be old,” it’s certainly the right music for the finale, deceptively providing a greater level of emotional satisfaction than what’s offered by the narrative arc.