Before there was Brokeback Mountain, there was 2002’s Yossi & Jagger, the sleeper-hit Israeli romantic tragedy about the illicit love between tormented homosexuals in the military—a world with rigid, unyielding conceptions of gender roles and masculinity. Yossi & Jagger ended with the death of Yehuda Levi, the pretty, androgynous Jagger of the title, a loss that completely devastates his lover, Ohad Knoller. As with 1978’s Oliver’s Story, the similarly tardy sequel to Love Story, this death seemingly offers a sequel nowhere to go but to luxuriate in the epic sadness of a protagonist, who would completely invalidate the first film’s epic tragedy were he to find another soulmate too easily. Sure enough, Yossi takes place entirely in the long shadow of Knoller’s grief as he struggles to find meaning in a world without Levi.
An older, thicker Knoller returns as a doctor still suspended in a state of perpetual grief over Levi. Knoller halfheartedly seeks out companionship online and satisfies his baser urges through porn while drifting through life without an anchor. But then he meets another impossibly gorgeous Israeli officer in Oz Zehavi, a flirtatious young man who invites Knoller to join him and his buddies for a road trip filled with drinking, massages, and intense flirtation.
In its superior first half, Yossi sustains a mood of wistful longing and inexorable loneliness as its directionless protagonist lumbers through a grey, joyless existence, but the film threatens to turn into a gay Israeli version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back once Knoller finds his impossibly gorgeous, persistent dream man. Yossi’s problem isn’t the ennui inherent in a protagonist nursing a broken heart from an earlier film, but rather with the unconvincing ease with which Knoller finds a man as beautiful, charismatic, and free with his sexuality as his lost love. The film’s central romance veers into the realm of wish-fulfillment, but it’s still drawn with tenderness and sensitivity, especially during an unexpectedly poignant sequence that contrasts Zehavi’s perfectly sculpted young body with Knoller’s doughy, aging form. Yossi is sweet and affecting even as it nudges into romance-novel territory, but it somewhat undercuts the tragedy of the first to suggest, as the film seems to, that maybe all Knoller needed to get over his defining tragedy was a sexy vacation with a hot new partner.