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Cantinflas
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by Jay Seaver

"Two halves that don't quite make a whole."
3 stars

It might be interesting to watch "Cantinflas" while making tick marks to see just how much is in Spanish with English subtitles and how much is in English with Spanish subtitles. It's probably not 50/50, or even that close, but there is clearly an effort being made to create a movie that plays well from one end of North America to the other (and beyond). Filmmaker Sebastian del Amo does well enough by that goal, but it's fair to wonder whether our not he in doing so has limited the film to being generally okay rather than specifically great.

There are two points of entry, one for each language. Hollywood in 1955 features Mike Todd (Michael Imperioli), a Broadway producer whose first foray into the world of film is an attempt to shoot Around the World in 80 Days with an international, cameo-filled cast. Elizabeth Taylor (Barbara Mori) is his first target, but the focus soon shifts to wooing Mexico's biggest star, Mario "Cantinflas" Moreno. The other track starts in 1931, when Moreno (Ă“scar Jaenada) aims to become a boxer, but his footwork is more suited for slapstick than sport. He's soon discovered by Stanislao Scilinski (Luis Gerardo MĂ©ndez), whose father-in-law rubs a tent show in Mexico City. It's there that Mario refines the Cantinflas character, meets future wife Valentina Ivanov's (Ilse Salas), and keeps an eye out for opportunities to move up in the business.

Either one of these threads has the potential for making an interesting story on its own, and as Mario's narrative catches up with Mike's, it's not hard to see why del Amo saw the potential in connecting them, especially once Julian Sedgwick shows up in a fun little role that connects things in a clever, witty way. The trouble is that in fitting both in, del Amo winds up leaving what seem like some important pieces out: The audience never really gets to see Mike as the clever producer who can turn a situation to his advantage, while Mario's rise just seems to happen with little action on his part beyond stubbornness as a performer; there a bit of a disconnect between the naturally funny man of the people who improvises in part because he is unable to memorize lines in 1931 and the canny mogul of 1955, with that side of the story reduced almost to being inattentive to his wife. On the other hand, while it's hard to leave young Elizabeth Taylor out of any story she might have been involved with, she's a tangent that does not do much for the film.

For all that the film can feel like portions of two different movies glued together, it's tough to deny that the common portion, Ă“scar Jaenada's portrayal of the title character, is quite impressive. Others will have to pass judgment on how well he recreates the real-life Moreno and Cantinflas, but he proves to be a talented physical comedian in his own right, and he gives his version the light, larger-than-life charm that the era's comedians projected on screen. There are nice bits where the persona seems to take over, both during creation and later on, when Valentina starts to wonder if the Mario Moreno she fell in love with exists between the raggedy character and the movie star. It's nifty to watch Mario's intelligence and instincts evolve - there may seem to be a step or two missing in the process, but the older Mario is a keen, sharpened version of the one from 1931.

Most everyone else is just in one half of the movie, and this gets fewer chances to shine, but they're a capable group. Michael Imperioli seems to start out kind of rough as Mike Todd probably playing the character as to overwhelmed and unprepared to be the driver of at least part of the crew he's presented as, but he seems more in his element when the character gets a little more active later on. Ilse Salas is a secondary constant as Valentina, and while she seldom outright takes over a scene, she handles Valentina's growth from wide-eyed, smitten youth to a wife who fears she been left behind quite well. To my ears, the English-language scenes play a little broader than those in Spanish, but it kind of works; Hollywood is kind of absurd while Mexico demands a sharper tone.

Not too sharp, though - del Amo and company aim for the same sort of old-Hollywood feel as the movies they reference (or whatever the Mexican equivalent is) - stylish sets, big, glamorous, but empty houses to indicate the hollowness of certain lives, with even the down-and-out presented in the best possible way. The polish is appreciated, from an opening sequence that I kind of resent the subtitles for how they took my eyes to the bottom of the screen to a scene during the credits that may not fit anywhere specific but is period-perfect. It's an affectionate recreation that matches the general fondness for the characters well.

It's polished enough that I do kind of wish that it were two different movies with overlapping casts, even if that did divide it among Spanish-speaking and English-speaking audiences. The potential is there in each section, and the movie as a whole is certainly pleasant enough, but they can't help but get in one another's way.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=27862&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/06/14 15:01:18
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USA
  29-Aug-2014 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Dec-2014

UK
  N/A

Australia
  29-Aug-2014
  DVD: 02-Dec-2014




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