Successful Israeli TV duo Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon jump to the big screen with sparkling results in “Maktub,” a very funny and warmhearted comedy about two goodfellas who are jolted out of bad-guy work and into that of guardian angels. Oded Raz nimbly directs their clever script, whose array of colorful characters elicit sharp work from an excellent cast. Combining darker elements (including some jarring violence) with goofy and sentimental ones, this is a mainstream comedy with significant export as well as remake potential.
Steve (Savyon) and Chuma (Amir) are introduced flaunting their know-how as gourmands at a Jerusalem restaurant whose owner nervously awaits their approval. But their business isn’t strictly gastronomical: They are collectors of protection money for mobster Kaslassy (Itzik Cohen). When the joint’s new chef announces he’ll no longer pay such blood money, our protagonists doff their napkins and beat him to a bloody pulp. Later, feeling peckish, they pop into another eatery, leaving a Chechen bagman outside holding the day’s accumulated loot. Fate (i.e., the Arabic term “maktub”) places them in the restroom when a bomb goes off — becoming the only people in the establishment to survive a terrorist attack.
Both are duly shaken. But it’s superstitious Chuma who interprets the event and subsequent “signs” as a clear directive that they end their criminal ways and take a new, altruistic path. By chance they’ve acquired a message some stranger placed in the cracks of the Wailing Wall. Chuma determines they must do whatever it takes to make this man’s wish come true. It doesn’t turn out to be so hard — a little strong-arming of the guy’s boss magically produces the increased salary and leisure time requested. What’s more, helping others proves an exhilarating novelty.
Still, Steve is ready to hop on the next plane to America, before the boss figures out they’ve stolen the briefcase of cash. (They blame its disappearance on the missing Chechen, who died in the explosion.) Chuma insists they continue playing fairy godfathers for Wall wishers, a task that briefly gets each of them in drag — but more importantly introduces Steve to a pretty Russian single-mother émigré (Anastasia Fein as Doniasha). He enjoys arranging a lavish bar mitzvah for her son, even as Chuma continues to nag him about neglecting his own — but not too hard because secretly Chuma is basically parenting his buddy’s child while also teetering on the verge of romance with his sexy ex-wife (Chen Amsalem as Lizo).
Things bog down a tad around the two-thirds point as various misunderstandings and conflicts burden our normally none-too-thoughtful protagonists with fears of commitment. But the pacing bounces back before arriving at a sweetly low-key happy ending.
Beyond their obvious talent as a writing team, Amir and Savyon have terrific chemistry — particularly with each other but also with their love interests here. They and Raz are generous with other players as well, notably letting Cohen and Igal Naor riff most enjoyably as a villainous buddy act echoing our stars’ sympathetic one.
The light, droll touch applied overall lets the filmmakers get away with a few fairly graphic moments that remind us criminal violence is no joke. These also pass fleetingly enough not to sour the genial mood.
A largely accordion-based score by Ron Bagno is one more pleasant element in a movie that has no lack of endearing qualities.