.The Neighbors Again: Rudo y Cursi and Adoration

Confusion in the South, buried torment to the North.

Beto Verdusco (Diego Luna) is a lanky, hot-tempered foreman at a banana plantation outside Tlachatlán, Jalisco, in the Mexican heartland. His brother Tato (Gael García Bernal), also a farmhand among the bananas, is more of a lover than a fighter, and nurses hopes of taking his amateur singing career to the professional level. Beto, a father of two with his wife Toña (Adriana Paz), long ago earned the nickname “Rudo” (tough) for his brash manners, while smooth-talking, easygoing Tato is known as “Cursi” (corny).

The brothers live in a ramshackle family compound alongside their mother, Elvira (Dolores Heredia), who’s married to an abusive drunk whom the brothers both despise. Nevertheless, Rudo and Cursi have dreams of making it big and escaping the dusty boondocks. In their spare time they both play for the local fútbol team, which is where they’re spotted one morning by a slick traveling soccer scout called Batuta (Argentine comedian Guillermo Francella).

At this stage in their careers, Luna and García Bernal would have to be about the last actors we’d expect to see in a Mexican soccer comedy. After they burst onto the world film scene as a pair of boisterous playboys in Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también in 2001, the two Mexican natives have played a variety of challenging roles in international productions.

Movie-star-handsome García has portrayed a guilty priest (El crimen del padre Amaro), the young Che Guevara (The Motorcycle Diaries), a gay Spaniard (Bad Education), a French dreamer (La science des rêves), and a Mexican good-old boy (Babel) for an impressive list of directors. Meanwhile, his real-life close friend Luna gravitated toward the offbeat genre side of the street — Frida, John Carpenter’s Vampires: Los Muertos, Nicotina, The Terminal for Steven Spielberg, and as a Michael Jackson impersonator in Mister Lonely — before landing his first high-profile character part as Harvey Milk’s unstable lover in Milk. Individually, both actors have remained true to the rebellious, provocative spirit of Y tu mama también.

That’s our first clue that Rudo y Cursi is not a typical comic buddy flick about the misadventures of two rancheros from the sticks. As conceived by writer-director Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso Cuarón (who produced along with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, heavyweights all), the brothers’ picaresque story is a sharp social satire of contemporary Mexico, held together by the slapstick glue of García and Luna’s country-boy antics. It operates smartly on both levels. The only topical item missing, por la gracia de diós, is the swine flu outbreak.

The brothers — first Rudo as a goalkeeper, then Cursi as a forward — get signed to play for two big-time soccer teams in Mexico City, and run into expected predicaments: quick money, predatory hangers-on, supermodels, dope, gambling, the temptation to shave points in big games, etc. Of course they’re completely unprepared for all this. Meanwhile, back at the rancho, their sister is engaged to marry the local drug lord. Hanging over the brothers’ situation like a flock of vultures is a sense of impending doom, more or less the same forbidding outlook as that of Y tu mamá también, the sense that they’ve lost before the game even begins. That’s what differentiates Rudo y Cursi from a Judd Apatow comedy like, say, Pineapple Express. The middle-class American stoners in that movie have had it going their way for so long they’re entitled to a happy ending no matter what. Poor Mexican campesinos, on the other hand, are screwed from the outset. That little piece of news can be read quite clearly between the lines in the ostensible sex comedy Y tu mamá. In Rudo y Cursi it’s right up front — with the saving grace of the brothers’ rowdy humor.

Carlos Cuarón, who co-wrote Y tu mamá with his brother in addition to directing Mexican domestic films, seems to have been waiting for this international crossover project. The presence of Luna and García, obviously having fun hamming it up as the two trash-talking bumpkins, is a major plus. The soccer milieu, TV commercial, and music vid parodies, and the brothers’ soap-opera-tragic difficulties, pull the movie in one direction, but it’s always yanked back on track by Cuarón’s social-satirical point of view, underscored by the voiceover narration. Nothing is easy, you’re cursed from birth, the fix is in, but don’t worry too much about it, cabrón.

Establishing shots of a wintry countryside, with loons on a lake. The mournful strains of a cello on the soundtrack. It could only be the latest film by Atom Egoyan, cinematic poet of Canadian guilt, with another saga of Death and Depression in the Great White North. Adoration is no exception. It stars Egoyan regular Arsinée Khanjian (Where the Truth Lies, Ararat, The Sweet Hereafter) in one of her best roles for Egoyan, as a woman with a secret burning inside her.

Writer-director Egoyan’s interlocking flashbacks and foregrounds center around Simon (Devon Bostick), a teenage orphan who has lived with his uncle Tommy (Scott Speedman) ever since Simon’s parents were killed in a car crash that Simon survived. Simon’s high-school French teacher, Sabine (Khanjian), gives the class an unusual assignment — to translate an account of a terrorist airline attack in which a man plants a bomb in the luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. About that time, an elaborately veiled woman appears in front of Tommy and Simon’s home and makes odd comments about their Christmas decorations. Things unravel from there.

Adoration takes the form of an emotional detective story, very Egoyan-ish, full of disconcerting, seemingly gratuitous confrontations that ultimately add up to a mosaic portrait of suppressed longing. The towed-car sequence is particularly nerve-wracking, but we can’t help admiring the director’s skill at pricking open wounds. Egoyan also has Simon resort to online communities to help him sort out his life. They mostly cause more distress.

The line between the characters’ inner narratives and their realities blur, early and often. We’re reminded of another Egoyan screenplay about the aftermath of a lethal traffic accident, The Sweet Hereafter — but Adoration‘s swirls and eddies are deeper and more disturbing, if anything, and the plot lines less clear cut. Khanjian dominates the film, radiating distrust in place of love. In Egoyanland it’s always winter, but that can be reassuring. We’re never uncertain about where we are — we’re exactly where Atom Egoyan wants us to be.


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