Thursday, November 19, 2009
One must wonder to what degree real life informs Carlos Cuarón's directorial debut. Long the writing partner of big brother Alfonso (the two co-wrote Soló con tu pareja and Y tu mamá también), the younger Cuarón wrote a script for his first time behind the camera about a story of intense sibling rivalry. He has undoubtedly had to weather comparisons, be they positive or negative, to his brother, and casting Y tu mamá también's Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna surely couldn't help. Unfortunately, one need not compare this story of fùtbol and its impact on two ambitious brothers from a poor Mexican village to Alfonso's oeuvre to spot weaknesses.
The brothers are Tato (Bernal) and Beto (Diego Luna). Both are locally renowned for their skills: Tato always puts points on the board and Beto is a brick wall in the goal. They see their chance out of banana picking and small town ennui when a scout's car gets a flat. Batuta watches them play and sees their skill, but he only has space for one more client, so the brothers decide who goes by a penalty shot. Beto, the older, poorer brother, asks Tato to let him block the shot, but Tato wants glory for himself.
Tato wins, thought Beto finds his way to the big leagues eventually. Beto, already embittered by his brother's "betrayal," earns the nickname "Rudo" for his abrasiveness on and off the field. Tato, a natural charmer who returns all the love the crowd gives him, is dubbed "Cursi," though Tato hates its perceived gay connotation. With his face that looks as young now as it did a decade ago, Bernal can't help but ooze charisma, while Luna looks more grizzled: we know nothing of their backgrounds, but one can instantly see a difference in the way life has treated Beto and Tato.
At this stage Cuarón shifts gears away from your typical sports movie to comment on an emotional crisis plaguing Mexico. Tato hits his stride before his brother, and he's hailed as a national hero simply for playing soccer. Batuta fulfills Tato's dream of being a singer by securing a contract for a song and video, a tacky Spanish version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," and he bags a gorgeous TV star (Jessica Mas). Both are symptomatic of a nation that, just like us, values fame, not talent, above all else; they each have stories of fighting their way out of poverty, but neither listens to the other as they're so consumed in the thrill of sleeping with a celebrity. He puts so much stock into his absurd music fantasy and is so distracted by the perks of fame that his game begins to slip, setting in motion the events that will ultimately strip him of that fame.
Rudo, on the other hand, cares solely for the money, and he eventually collapses like a neutron star. He shuts out the opposing team in every match, but he gambles away his money, first at the horse track and then in a makeshift high-stakes casino run by ruthless sharks. To help ease Rudo's sense of caution, these men feed him a constant supply of cocaine in order to enslave him in two ways. Back home, his wife joins a pyramid scheme and even goads him into recruiting teammates, and she just never does seem to get it when the company finds an excuse to take away her "points" just as she's on the verge of winning that completely legitimate Caribbean cruise.
Cuarón has an excellent grasp on the black comedy of his social message, but he fails to tie it back into the story. Tato and Beto suffer a series of setbacks and tragedies, yet we do not feel sorry for them because the satirical aspect of the story requires us to view them as loathsome man-children who dive headfirst into wealth and celebrity. Bernal and Luna give commanding performances, as they do, yet neither character has enough humanity to hang a hat on. Furthermore, everything concerning the futbol aspect of the story -- the rags to riches tale, a rivalry settled by one last game, and a penalty shot, no less -- is clichéd to the point of tedium; we know exactly what will happen long before the characters.
Visually, however, it must be said that Cuarón's first time in the director's chair is often impressive. He brings out the social commentary without forcing it, and he never loses track of his characters even though there is so little to track. However, Rudo y Cursi ultimately suffers for the unconnected threads of Cuarón's script, and the false emotional weight he places on characters wholly undeserving of it. He even undercuts his theme of the beauty of the simple life at the end, where the brothers return home losers, only to be given a modest form of happiness from their wealthy brother-in-law, who may or may not be a drug lord. You know, the sort of thing that happens all the time.