Sibling Rivalry & Summer Love

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By Shlomo Porath

With nothing particularly thrilling new in theaters the past couple of weeks, I went back to check out a couple of early 2009 films I’d missed. It’s a relatively mellow duo, but they did offer some surprises.

  The Mexican film Rudo Y Cursi marks a reunion of a number of the key people behind the wonderful Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, who played the two best friends on a road trip in Y Tu Mama star here as temperamental siblings. The writer-director of this film is Carlos Cuaron, who co-wrote Y Tu Mama’s screenplay with his brother Alfonso. Alfonso directed that film (followed it up with the third Harry Potter film and Children of Men) and is one of the producers of Rudo Y Cursi (along with fellow Mexican auteurs Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu and Guillermo del Toro).

  Like that earlier film, Rudo Y Cursi is a human story wrapped within a familiar and clichéd genre. This time, it’s the sports movie.

 Rudo (Luna) and Cursi (Bernal) are half-brothers in a small Mexican town. Both have dreams of becoming soccer stars, though Rudo has a serious gambling problem, and Cursi dreams of becoming a singer, as well. The plot is set into motion when a soccer talent scout spots them. Apparently desperate for a sibling rivalry, the plot has them compete for a chance at the big-leagues, with Cursi winning, only to have Rudo join him anyway (on an opposing team, of course).    What follows is too dull to describe. I was prepared for frivolity, but this film often seems bored with itself. It tries to shake things up with abrupt tonal shifts, but they seem so inconsistent and unmotivated that I kept on waiting for the movie to settle into some sort of groove, to go somewhere. But it just goes in circles, making it rather tedious.

  Both Bernal and Luna are in their own strange universe here, and seem to be acting at the situations, not really connecting with whatever plot element they are faced with. They are quite unfocused. The only anchor the film has is Guillermo Francella as Batuta, the scout/agent that discovered them. He is one charming SOB, and the one who is entirely comfortable in character. Batuta represents the only really compelling conceptual strand in the film- its sad, deep cynicism.

  Batuta is warm and friendly and supportive…and inherently corrupt. It’s not that at times he is good and at times not- he is entirely amoral. He’s always out for number one, but he’ll be as helpful as the situation allows. It’s only fitting that he also serves as the narrator for the film, serving up all kinds of pithy-sounding observations about how much soccer is like life. His tone is one of “Life is what it is- you’re not going to win. Maybe this pseudo-deep saying will help you make sense of it…but no matter what- you’re not going to win.” This is such a pervasive sentiment in the film, in which the only small measure of happiness left at the end of it is courtesy of a drug-dealer, the closest thing the Mexico depicted in this film has to a positive authority figure.

  That depressing conclusion is the only thing that stuck among the many tones the film tried to juggle- farce, sibling rivalry, sports drama, cautionary tale about misguided notions of success (among others). It is doubly depressing because I’m not entirely sure it was even intentional- that fatalistic tone seems to be the norm in Mexican cinema. I can’t exactly say I’m disappointed with this film, as I was not expecting much. Messy as it is, it is at least identifiably Mexican in spirit, whereas many cinematic messes are not identifiably anything remotely interesting.

  The new film Adventureland also jumps around tonally, but over here, it is mostly of a piece. That piece is a mid-mid-life crisis, something that is all-too-resonant with this writer. Appropriately for an autobiographical film, it feels like a hazy but impactful memory- it works more as a state of mind than as a story. It’s surprising in how low-key it is –  so low-key that it creeps up on you, its implications landing only upon reflection.

  It is also surprising because of its director, Greg Mottola. This is his third feature. I haven’t seen 1996’s The Daytrippers, which he also wrote, but I was one of the few who were not charmed by 2007’s Superbad, which he directed, but did not write. I certainly didn’t see any unique sensibility at work there- it felt like another Judd Apatow joint, down to its effective but impersonal direction. Although Apatow is not credited on this film, I was expecting another exceptionally vulgar comedy with a heart of gold. Adventureland is neither particularly vulgar nor uproariously funny. But it is extremely heartfelt and personal, and to me, its character evoked something like reality in a way that Superbad never did.

  Mottola’s 22-year old surrogate in the film is the bookish, shy, and maladroit James Brennan, who also happens to be a virgin. Playing him is Jesse Eisenberg (who can be described as a less cool Michael Cera), a natural choice, as James is a slightly older amalgam of two earlier Eisenberg roles. In 2002’s Roger Dodger, he played a shy and maladroit teenager visiting his uncle in New York, hoping to get laid. In 2005’s The Squid and The Whale, he played a bookish and deeply insecure teenager trying to find his place in the world, against the backdrop of his parents’ divorce. Not only are the characteristics similar, but the situations are, too- lack of parental support, the realization that a role-model might be full of crap, the infatuation with a cool girl who likes ‘mature’ men. I haven’t a clue if he has much range, but he sure does nail this particular type of character. In that, he’s like Mottola- I don’t know if he’s got another strongly felt and compelling movie in him, but he does seem to know what he wants here, even when I wasn’t as confident (more on that later).

  The year is 1987. That may sound like a big deal, but, unlike many period pieces, this film underplays its period. The 80’s are there –music, clothing, hair- but not as a constant punch-line. They’re just…there. Our hero is about to leave Pittsburgh to embark on a European road-trip, before moving to New York and studying journalism at Columbia. Calamity strikes: James’ father loses his job. Not only is the road-trip out of the question, but James is going to have to make some money to live on the following year. His Renaissance major not being particularly useful in the job market (“unless someone wants help restoring a fresco), James takes the only job he can get- operating the games at Aventureland, a pathetic local amusement park.

  James is not the only person stuck there- a variety of college-aged people are there, from different backgrounds. In fact, this film is surprisingly class conscious- these people aren’t faceless lower-middle class kids, made up entirely of quirks. There is a friction between those who need to be there and those who might have other options, friction between Catholics and Jews, and even an antagonism between one girl who is quiet but sexually active, another who is an ostentatious tease, but is saving herself (due to her Catholicism). This is a direct result of the amount of room Mottola gives his supporting characters to exist as fully realized characters.

  Lisa P. (Magarita Levieve), the hot girl everyone has a crush on, seems to be nothing more than a tease, putting on airs. But she is then given a subtle shading of sweetness, which evolves into a real personality. Same goes for Joel (Martin Starr) the pipe-smoking, philosophy quoting uber-dork. Could’ve been a funny sideshow, but he has a complete emotional arc of his own. Even Frigo, the guy who likes nothing more than punching James in the groin felt like more than just a caricature (Groin punching is his deeply meaningful macho form of communication).

   Then of course, there’s Em…the whole God-damn raison d’etre (to quote the Coen Brothers). Played by Kristen Stewart (Panic Room, Into the Wild, Twilight), Em very quickly catches James’ eye. Attractive but approachable, cool but can appreciate a philosophy joke…our hero is instantly smitten. And, unfortunately, it is here that the film started to lose me. I could certainly see the attraction. But the plotting of James and Em’s relationship rang false to me. The tentative early stages were great, and were quite recognizable. But at a certain point, both characters do things that are so unconvincing and out of character that I felt plot machinations at work, and could not buy into the love story. Actually, with James it’s only one particular moment- but a crucial one. With Em, however, a sizable section involves an affair she’s having with Ryan Reynolds, who plays the maintenance man. The problem is not with Reynolds- he is quite likable here, and his role has some interesting elements. But neither character struck me as going for the kind of relationship they have here, nor responding the way they do to the complications that ensue.
 
  Stewart is good, as she often is…although she does have an annoying habit of moving her hand through her hair to amplify whatever emotion she may be expressing. It actually is a surprisingly emotive action, but once I was aware of it, it bugged the hell out of me. She nailed a lot of her material. But for the second lead in a movie full of finely observed characters, I felt like she was short-changed. Her character’s actions became less and less convincing, which meant that, as the movie tightened for the ending, with the plot coming together and the lessons learnt, I was at a distance, the intended impact of the pay-off severely muted.

  Still, I look back with great affection at the film’s pitch-perfect evocation of a long-gone endless summer, and at the care and insight it has about so many of the people that populate it…even if it’s only for part of the time. It’s not as funny, sexy or immediately satisfying as others of its ilk, but it is certainly the most deeply felt, warts and all.