| December 10, 2014

I’m going to deviate slightly from my norm, and give you my conclusion first. Do I recommend Cantinflas (2014)? Reluctantly, and largely because its subject is an iconic comedian in the Spanish-speaking world. Imagine Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and physical comedy combined with Grouch Marx’s sly attitude and quick wit — the Cantinflas story needs to be told.

However, my main problem with the film is the way in which they chose to tell the story, framing it with the story of Broadway impresario turned would-be Hollywood producer Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos).

It’s Hollywood, 1955, and Todd is trying to convince United Artists to make Around the World in 80 Days as an international epic with fifty of the world’s biggest-named stars in unpaid cameo roles. Among those names is Cantinflas, who Todd is wooing for a very, very minor role — and a racially stereotyped one at that.

If you know film history, you already know how Todd’s efforts turned out, so whenever we flash forward to 1955, it just distracts from the story of the film — about the person the movie is named after. It’s a framing device without any suspense, and it really feels like a heavy-handed way to sell what is Mexico’s entry for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to an American (read: “English only”) audience. Meanwhile, in the U.S., it was only marketed through Spanish language media anyway, since it’s still mostly a Spanish language film.

Ironically, the white bread around this paella sandwich becomes its own meta-commentary on Hollywood’s relationship to the rest of the world, and its own self-centeredness with the attitude of “If you aren’t famous here, you aren’t anyone.” In fact, Todd has no idea how famous Cantinflas really is until he finally meets him. Whether this was intended as commentary or not, I don’t know.

At least we jump quickly at the beginning from 1955 Hollywood to 1931 Veracruz, where we meet 20-ish Mario Moreno (Óscar Jaenada, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). He’s come to the city to compete in a boxing match that was cancelled, so offers his services to a local tent show as a janitor instead.

This is where the magic and style of the film suddenly explode off of the screen, and Moreno becomes the center of that explosion when he is thrust onstage to calm an angry crowd and does it in his own inimical style. Unfortunately, he also winds up with the producer’s young daughter thrusting herself on him, ending one gig — but leading quickly to another in México City.

Moreno’s rise and transition to Cantinflas are paralleled with the countdown to Todd’s pending press conference and the growing doubts of UA Studio reps over whether Todd has, in fact, signed any stars to the film yet.

While the Hollywood scenes are stylish and well-written in their own right, they feel like too much of an exercise in name-dropping without the actors who play the major stars bearing much of a resemblance to the real characters.

However, whenever the camera is on Jaenada, the entire film lifts off. If Cantinflas does get an Oscar nod for best picture, it would be a crime if Jaenada is not also up for best actor. He really plays three characters — Mario Moreno, the twenty year-old with a dream who is up for anything in order to make a living; Cantinflas, the beloved character from many feature films; and Don Mario, the suave, fortyish man who is a respected union leader and really knows his business. They’re all the same person, but also three quite different people.

Jaenada’s turn as Cantinflas is uncanny, especially as he recreates several of the actor’s best-known film scenes. There was originally some criticism of his casting, since he’s not from Mexico but from Spain, and from Catalon at that, but nary a hint of the King’s Spanish slips out in his performance. His complete embodiment of the real man is eerie, right down to the smallest gesture or expression.

I can understand the criticism, though, because language is really important in the story. Cantinflas was not just a physical comedian. His comedy also came from elaborate wordplay. There’s a funny scene early on when Moreno runs into a friend on the street, in the company of his Russian girlfriend, for whom Spanish is a second language. When they finish talking, she asks him if that was even Spanish and he replies, “No, fue puro mejicano” — no, that was pure Mexican. Think of it as a conversation carried on in half-finished or mixed-up proverbs: “You can lead a horse.” “Fools and money.” “Honey, vinegar.” It makes total sense if you grew up with the culture, and absolutely none if you didn’t.

There’s a lot to admire onscreen in addition to Jaenada’s performance. The set design and cinematography are absolutely gorgeous, fluidly combining several different styles which all serve to set the mood. Director Sebastian del Amo (The Fantastic World of Juan Orol) is one of those directors who knows how to set up a scene so that we know what’s happening without having it spoon fed to us.

I can’t help but think that the movie could have been as great as Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992) if it had followed that model instead, chronicling our hero from early days to latter days without a framing device. Considering that Cantinflas lived for almost as long after Around the World as he had lived before it, it’s a strange choice of jumping-in point. Since the film is a Mexican production, it’s even stranger. It would be like making an American biopic of Sylvester Stallone that focuses on a Japanese producer courting him to make commercials, passing over Rocky in a scene or two.

I also wouldn’t have minded a longer running time. Because we spend so much time in 1955 Hollywood, a lot of the story seems to be telescoped, condensed down to a “greatest moments” re-telling that, unfortunately, passes through many of the rags to riches tropes that, true or not, always seem clichéd, including “We’re rich but not happy,” “You’ve forgotten who you were,” and “Deus ex machina puts you back on track.” I don’t doubt that at least one of them actually happened, but the story began to feel generic, and it would have been were it not for Jaenada’s performance holding it together.

Still, if you’re familiar with Cantinflas, but especially if you’re not, it’s worth checking this film out as a reminder or an introduction. It’s in the “B” tier of biopics — nowhere near the greats like Chaplin, Lenny, and Malcom X, but more in the realm of noble experiments like Beyond the Sea and De-Lovely. Go for the style and for Jaenada’s performance. But, as a friend of mine put it, take the story with a grain of salt.

Cantinflas was a lot more complicated than presented here. Maybe, someday, Mexico can remake the film with a huge budget. As long as they cast Jaenada in the lead, I wouldn’t mind a remake at all.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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