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
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
everyonewith 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
surfyou 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 providesunintentionally, I'm
afraidone 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 womaneven one as dimwitted as Luisawould
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 thatno matter his
level of inebriation, whether or not he believed this assertionhe 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 whatsoeverat 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
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
Walkengiving his usual charmingly twitchy readingmore 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
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
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.
Honorable mentions to Ben and Austin.