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Dude, Where's My Serape?
by Lucius Shepard
May 16, 2002

When the so-called "major critics," the TV shills and the columnists from the big dailies, chime in with favorable reviews of a film so abysmal that dogs howl when they hear the theme music (take, for example, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes), it's logical to assume that the fix is in, that at the very least dinner at Lutece or first-class airline tickets to the premiere are involved. However, when these same ladies and germs wax exuberant about a foreign film with a less-than-magnificent budget, even a cynic like myself dares to wonder if it might not actually be worth seeing. And so it was that, swayed by Elvis Mitchell's glowing review in the New York Times (among others), I hustled down to the local art house to watch a matinee showing of Y Tu Mamá También, a Mexican picture billed as an intelligent coming-of-age sex comedy. Had I known that director Alfonso Cuar�n was also the man chiefly responsible for Great Expectations, that lamentable recasting of the Dickens novel featuring Ethan Hawke and Gywneth Paltrow, I would not have been so eager for the experience; but unaware of this, it was with distinct eagerness that I welcomed the dimming of the theater lights. A few minutes in, however, I began to have some misgivings. But I told myself that Mamá must be a slow starter. Extremely slow, as it turned out. Fifteen minutes later I was having difficulty focusing on the screen. After half an hour I found myself checking the time, trying to determine how much more torture I would have to endure, and I had reached the inescapable conclusion that by contrast to Y Tu Mamá También, the works of the Farrelly Brothers were products of sublime genius. Whereas the Farrellys place the acts of farting, masturbation, sex, and urination in crudely humorous contexts, Cuar�n presents these acts seeming to assume that they are innately funny, and that by displaying them to us, he is being cleverly risqu�. Or existentially honest . . . or something. But all he succeeds in doing is to bore us. Though the audience tittered nervously at every gaseous and fluid discharge, perhaps expecting something funny was on the horizon and trying to go with the thought, not once was there a genuine outburst of laughter.

As to the story, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) are, respectively, a wealthy kid just graduated from high school and his middle-class friend, also a recent graduate. Like many American kids of similar age (there is more than a touch of American cultural imperialism in the film), they indulge in drugs, are obsessed with sex (which they partake of in the most desultory possible manner), and consider themselves superior to everyone—with the possible exception of their girlfriends, both of whom are heading off on a European vacation as the picture opens. At a posh party in Mexico City attended by the Mexican president, the boys hit on Luisa (Maribel Verdu), a beautiful woman some ten years their senior who is currently married to Tenoch's cousin, and try to persuade her to take a road trip with them to a beach, a beautiful beach named Boca del Cielo (Heaven's Mouth), which they have invented on the spot. Luisa, occupied with other concerns, blows them off, but a day or two later, after Tenoch's cousin confesses to her that he has had an affair, she changes her mind and away the three of them go, south toward Oaxaca and thence to the Pacific coast.

Every now and then, interspersing the bouts of unsatisfying sex and inane conversations that serve both to point up the boys' callowness and to give evidence that Luisa, despite her relative age and experience, is not much brighter, her brain filled with banal New Age-ish sentiments ("Life is like surf—you must give yourself to it.") every now and then the soundtrack switches off and is replaced by a portentous voiceover that fills us in on the background of the characters and the country through which they are passing. At one point, as they drive along an unprepossessing stretch of road, the narration informs us that had they come this way five years previously, they would have seen an overturned burning truck, dead chickens everywhere, and a woman kneeling at the side of the road, weeping inconsolably. This is, I assume, intended to contrast the harshness of life with the boys' insipid frivolity, but the effect is more that of a non sequitur, especially when one considers that the same might be said of almost any stretch of road in Mexico. A while later, after the three travelers have found a suitable beach, pigs escaped from a nearby farm foul their camp, and the voice of the narrator intones that not long afterward a number of these pigs were slaughtered and several people were afflicted with trichinosis from eating their flesh. The tendentiousness of this announcement provides—unintentionally, I'm afraid—one of the few truly amusing moments in the movie.

When she is not prattling on about nothing or seducing one or another of the boys, Luisa is shown weeping. It seems Cuar�n is asking us to believe that some trauma, something more than an affair, has driven her away from home and into the clumsy erotic clutches of Tenoch and Julio. Okay. Perhaps this, then, explains why a beautiful woman—even one as dimwitted as Luisa—would spend more than ten seconds in the company of these toadboys. Nah! It just doesn't wash. And when, ultimately, we learn the specific reason for her sadness, her presence on the trip becomes even less plausible. Plausibility goes out the window altogether during the climactic scene in which Luisa and the two boys pitch a drunk in a shanty restaurant on the beach. The boys not only confess that they have slept with each other's girlfriends on numerous occasions, but Julio reveals that he has slept with Tenoch's mother, a statement to which Tenoch responds with giddy laughter. (Having lived in Mexico and known a Tenoch or two, it's impossible to accept that—no matter his level of inebriation, whether or not he believed this assertion—he would have reacted with such mildness, especially considering the fact that he is acutely aware that Julio's station in life is beneath his own.) Upon repairing to their room, Julio, Luisa, and Tenoch engage in a m�nage � trois that culminates in a homosexual encounter between the boys. Given their previous homoerotic involvement (masturbating side-by-side on diving boards and so on), this does not seem entirely beyond the realm of possibility, but given the emotional setting, it plays falsely.

Implausibility aside, what Cuar�n has wrought here is not, as advertised, American Pie with a social conscience, but more an unfunny take on Dude, Where's My Car with a heaping helping of hollow pretension. There is no coming-of-age arc whatsoever—at film's end the two boys are every bit as clueless as they were at the beginning; all that has changed is they are no longer friends, which, if one takes into account the class distinctions inherent in the relationship, perhaps they never were. Undistinguished camerawork, lame dialogue, and confusedly stated characters . . . Whatever it was that caused reviewers to praise Mam�'s artfulness and lucid narration flat eludes me. I can only assume that it had nothing to do with a viewing of the movie.

If it's good Mexican cinema you're interested in, check out a DVD of Amores Perros or Arturo Ripstein's disturbing Deep Crimson. And if you're looking for a decent comedy, you might want to give Scotland, PA a try.

This way-underpublicized little movie is a retelling of MacBeth set in the 1970s in a small, scuzzy Pennsylvania town, where the local tanning salon is named "When a Tan Loves a Woman." The action centers upon a fast-food restaurant known as Duncan's. Joe McBeth (James Le Gros) is the assistant manager of the place; his wife Pat (Maura Tierney) works there as a waitress. Despite being the mainstay of the restaurant, Joe is taken for granted by Duncan (James Rebhorn). When passed over for promotion in favor of Duncan's son Malcolm (Tom Guiry), Joe lets his wife convince him to try a hostile takeover. Pat and Joe attempt to coerce Duncan after closing one night, and the owner accidentally goes headfirst into a deep-fryer. After buying the restaurant at a gift price from Malcolm, who wants nothing to do with his late father's business, Pat and Joe transform the place into a kind of proto-McDonald's with a drive-through window and a roving French-fry truck. They prosper, but Pat grows increasingly obsessive concerning a grease burn she received when Duncan's head splatted into the bubbling fryer, and Joe turns to drink. Enter Ernie MacDuff (Christopher Walken), a vegetarian police lieutenant, and the McBeths' life begins to unravel.

Instead of three witches, three hippies (most notably, a hilarious Andy Dick) happen by now and again to give Joe oracular counsel. Birnham Wood is the site of boozy deer hunts. The story translates with such facility into a comedy, one begins to wonder about Shakespeare's original intent for the play. Director Billy Morisette keeps things moving at a nice pace, and LeGros, Tierney, and Walken—giving his usual charmingly twitchy reading—more than do justice to the script. Tierney, best known for her work on television (ER and Talk Radio), is especially good. She provides the majority of the movie's energy, pulling off a performance that not only is extremely funny, but also manages to expand our understanding of Lady MacBeth, adding what seems a crucial neurotic slant to our conception of the character. Hopefully, Tierney, who appears later this summer in a major film with Al Pacino, Hillary Swank, and Robin Williams, Insomnia, will be getting more work in the movies, because she has a lot more to offer as an actress than her television appearances have allowed her to display.

I intended to end this review right here, but I'm so bewildered as to why critics have lavished praise upon Y Tu Mamá También . . . I need to resolve this question somehow.

Could it be Payola?

I don't think so. There's not enough money behind the film to warrant such an expenditure.

I'm stumped.

So, in hopes of satisfying myself on the matter, I'm extending an invitation to one and all to help me out. Whoever submits the most creative explanation for the entirely undeserved approbation extended to Y Tu Mamá También will win a magnificent prize.

Well, actually, not that magnificent. A signed copy of a limited edition of my novel Colonel Rutherford's Colt, with a cover by J.K. Potter, which will appear later this year.

Send your entries to ElectricStory. Employees of Nabisco and General Foods are not eligible. Otherwise there's only one rule: That I may be wrong in my assessment of the movie is not an acceptable explanation.

The contest ran from the publication date to July 31, 2002. And here's our winner, an eleventh-hour entry:

I guess how I felt about Y Tu Mamá También depended on the French New Wave and a radio ad.

The French New Wave answer, aka the cynical response, says that American critics were jonesing for a French New Wave-style film that was ersatz Band of Outsiders-era Jean-Luc Godard, just to show the public that their displays of critical sensibility had not been reduced to the plaudit whoring for the major studios that provided their daily bread. Y Tu Mamá También proved perfect in this regard, as its lack of dangerous political and emotional content proved easier to praise than something more disturbing such as Eduardo Cantet's Human Resources.

The radio-ad answer, aka the positive answer, begins with a radio ad promoting tourism in Mexico. The portrait of Mexico which the ad created made our southern neighbor sound like a neighbor to Brigadoon. Cuaron's film, by contrast, provided a more balanced depiction of that country. If Cuaron's Mexico was not the gringo-asshole playground of the ad, it was a far cry from the ingrained nihilism and despair of Amores Perros. Instead, viewers were treated to a Mexico of many shades, one bursting with both earthiness and love, simple pleasures and quietly humane moments. That this semi-travelogue never devolved into syrupy sentimentality is an accomplishment by itself.

What Cuaron's film ultimately is about is the shedding of personal illusions. Our three lead characters start out acting as if they lived in a behavioral clean room of bland conformity. Indeed, for much of the film, both boys are behaviorally indistinguishable. Only by setting out on the road to the supposedly mythical Heaven's Mouth do all the characters realize their true identities.

Vagaries aside, Cuaron's film does sport more intelligence than the average Hollywood film which takes the audience's stupidity as a given. Still, I am unsettled by the news that Cuaron's next directing project will be the third Harry Potter movie.

—Peter Wong

Honorable mentions to Ben and Austin.