What an amazing 21st century it's been for Mexican cinema, and Mexican directors in particular: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men) and kid brother Carlos Cuaron, whose Rudo y Cursi is the first offering from Cha Cha Cha Productions—a collaborative effort by all of these men. Look out, rest of the world!
There's a reunion feeling in the air, and who else to cast in the roles of fractious futbol-playing stepbrothers Beto and Tato, aka Rudo and Cursi, but Mexico's two most charismatic young actors, the returning Y Tu Mama Tambien dream team of Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal? Director Cuaron also wrote the screenplay, and it's hard to imagine he did so with anybody else in mind but these two, an internationally proven buddy-movie team. As directors, the Cuarons clearly think with the same brain, and Rudo y Cursi is in some ways so similar to Y Tu Mama it could almost be a sequel. There's the same handheld look (obstreperously handheld in places, if handheld's not your bag), the same bickersome dialogue riddled with choice Mexican swears, the same philosophizing narrator breaking in every few minutes to wax philosophical or tell you what happened to the pigs that trashed the campground, etc.
Rudo y Cursi's narrator is a little more involved in the action than Y Tu Mama's: It's the voice of Batuta ("baton"), the talent scout who plucks the stepbrothers from obscurity on a banana plantation after seeing them in action in local league play. The setup is a little preposterous (two rising soccer stars whose meteoric careers culminate in single combat on the field, hermano vs. hermano) but once you accept this contrivance it's smooth sailing—a parable almost. Batuta does his share of pontificating, but more lightheartedly than Y Tu Mama's omnipotent mystery voice. Rudo y Cursi was made with fun in mind, and that is how it should be taken.
Still, there's more than a hint of that ol' Cuaron melancholy. As mentioned, the premise is far-fetched and flimsy, but the consequences of big-league success and failure affect the characters and their families in plausible ways. Luna's family-man goalie and reluctant banana worker Rudo runs off in the middle of the night for his shot at the big leagues, leaving his wife broke and without a blender, but with the inkling of a new income selling a line of spurious health-care products. The boys love their mother, hate their insolent stepdad, and vie for her attention with promises of the house they're going to build her.
Rudo y Cursi's acting is uniformly great. Guillermo Francella, as talent scout Batuta, cuts an appealingly untrustworthy figure, with mischievous eyes and a penchant for handshake deals and statuesque women a head or two taller. Garcia Bernal is basically the same overgrown kid he was in Y Tu Mama and to some extent seems to be in all his roles—most entertaining when beset by forces beyond his control, even if that force is just his character's own outsized personality or emotions. In Rudo y Cursi, he plays a gifted striker (and horrible singer) who could set himself up for life as a soccer player but still dreams of a music career. The tacky artifacts of his musical moonlighting (including a mindblowingly cheesy promo video for his big hit, a Spanish-language version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me") provide the few moments that border on snickering irony in an otherwise genuine movie. Garcia Bernal himself, at least at Luna's side, seems hardly to have aged a day since 2001.
The real surprise is Luna, acting with real restraint as the superstar goalie brother with an explosive temper and a big-time gambling problem. Unlike Cursi, Rudo is dead serious about soccer and his soccer career. But like Cursi, he succumbs just as haplessly to the vices of money and stardom, only in heavier ways and with a heavier crowd. Sweaty and tormented, while Cursi nurses a broken heart over a vain, opportunistic supermodel TV presenter, Rudo is in way over his head and it's up to Luna to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting. Not coincidentally, the more famous the brothers get, the uglier the crowds turn, particularly as the drama hurtles toward its (admittedly predictable) one-on-one showdown. Rudo y Cursi is blunt in its criticism (by way of Batuta's voice over) of soccer as big business and of the importance of winning over everything, but, like Batuta, it's forced to concede that the biggest monsters have their charms.
In this case, namely that soccer is involved, in many parts of the world people will do just about anything to get a corner of the dream. For a movie about the most balletic of team sports, Rudo y Cursi is surprisingly short on athletic action. You don't miss it, though, because one of the things the movie nails perfectly is the dreaming—the waiting on the bench, and the tenseness of the players, but mostly, particularly for those confined to the stands and sidelines, the watching and the dreaming.
Rudo y Cursi concludes its run at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, July 30.