Home Video Hovel: Cupcakes, by Aaron Pinkston
When I first heard about Cupcakes, it didn’t immediately grab my interest. Frankly, everything about the name and poster of the film seemed cheesy and sugary (much like a cheese filled cupcake). Then I saw that Cupcakes was written and directed by Eytan Fox and that immediately turned me around. His previous films, in particular Yossi & Jagger and its sequel Yossi, are sweet and entertaining films while exploring full characters in dramatic, sometimes tragic, relationships. Cupcakes is more broadly comedic and focuses a little more on plot, but it doesn’t completely sacrifice the character work for which Fox is known. And yet it’s still as sweet as first anticipated – though I shouldn’t have been so hesitant.
Cupcakes centers on a group of neighbors who are fanatics of a yearly televised international singing competition called UniverSong. We are introduced to each of them quickly in an opening montage by their most general characteristics – talented baker Anat, Premiere top aide Dana, cross-dressing teacher Ofer, struggling singer-songwriter Efrat, former beauty queen Yael, and shy blogger with a speech impediment Keren. Connecting their relationships through an apartment building is a simple, yet clever way to bring these vastly different characters together in an authentic way.
The group gathers together for the latest contest only to realize that the official entrant from Israel is a terrible over-sexed love song with little heart. With the group’s spirits already down, Anat announces that her husband has left, sparking an impromptu sing-along caught on mobile phone camera. An organizer of the competition ends up seeing the performance and they are chosen, without knowledge, to be the nation’s next representative.
Initially, though, each of the unlikely group is hesitant to sign on. They all struggle with opening themselves up to the world – they’ve been hurt, lack the confidence, lay down to career pressures, or don’t want to be changed. This leads to some fairly cliche subplots and plot contrivances, but it’s all kept digestible. If the individual characters weren’t as likeable, the film would definitely be in trouble. But Fox cares about each of them and gives them all their own story and arc. At only 90 minutes and with six co-lead characters, there isn’t too much opportunity for development, which may lead to some of the film’s narrative shortcuts.
Fox doesn’t have the thorough style of someone like Wes Anderson, but he has a definite eye for composition and especially color. There are no dull colors, everything in vibrant blues, greens, yellows and reds. This is perfectly encapsulated in a brief sequence where each of the group literally sees the streets of Paris through different colored glasses (rose and otherwise).
While it doesn’t overdo its criticism, the music of Cupcakes yearns for a time when pop music was more about feeling than a beat. Over the years, UniverSong has morphed from a simple platform where the singer’s voice and their words were the most important part of the performance into an unwieldy juggernaut of wigs, costumes, grand productions and autotune. As singing competition shows like American Idol and The Voice have become bigger, they’ve become less stripped down, more superficial than real. As the group enter into the UniverSong competition, they are immediately met by designers, marketers and PR representatives looking to transform their regular selves into a spectacle. Correspondingly, the film’s soundtrack is full of sweet throwbacks like a Hebrew cover of “Hallelujah” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
The upbeat story and bright visual palette leads to a charming little movie. Ultimately leading to the group’s performance on international television, we’ve seen many examples of how this ends in movies. I won’t spoil the ending, but will say that Cupcakes is positive while remaining true to itself. The film is comfortable in its skin, just as its characters become by film’s end.