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by Jay Seaver

"Doesn't want to be a 'losers make a big score' movie, can't be otherwise."
4 stars

Oddly enough, the part of the true story which inspired "Museo" that most seemed to intrigue the people waiting in line for the film - that the artifacts stolen just sat in the thieves' houses for years - doesn't really factor into it; the circumstances that lead to that are important, but it's almost gilding the lily. The point is made without that. And, as the opening credits remind the audience, this is just a "replica of the original" events.

In this version, the two men who robbed Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology in 1985 are Juan Nuñez (Gael García Bernal) and Benjamin Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), both studying to be veterinarians and in some ways defined by their fathers: Ben's is very sick and requires constant attention, while Juan is a bit of a disappointment, as both father and grandfather were doctors and "Shorty" never seems to commit to much. A summer job working in the museum (for weed money, according to Ben's narration) gave Juan an inside view of its lax security, enough to come up with a plan to rob the place, which they do on Christmas Eve. They're counting on Bosco "Chunuc" Huerta (Bernardo Velasco), a tour guide at the Mayan pyramids, to help them fence their take, but the 140 artifacts they stole are almost impossible to move.

The heist that serves as the movie's centerpiece is an all-time great, as silent and detailed as the one in Rififi, though not exactly going for the same kind of tension. Writer/director Alonso Ruiz Palacios embellishes what happened, in large part to put the focus on Juan and Ben more than the lack of security that enabled them, though that being a factor is inescapable. Ruiz Palacios skips over a lot of the standard pieces of this sort of caper - no casing the museum or recruiting the team, a trip to the hardware store the only prelude to the main event - but still builds a nifty moment or two before and after, even if it's just Juan kind of being a jerk at Christmas dinner. The movie moves well enough both during the robbery and on either side that the relatively simple action doesn't seem stretched, and the film marinates in the delightful irony that pulling off the main part of the plan doesn't mean they get anywhere with seemingly easier stages.

Their skill at building that sort of straight-ahead crime story and highlighting realism - the cinematography by Damian Garcia (captured on film for additional period authenticity) is excellent, and puts the audience right in its very specific locations - makes it odd that the filmmakers seem to embellish in other ways. Ruiz Palacios leans on his awareness of the differences between real-life crime and the genre filmmaking throughout, although the piece of fiction that most captures Juan's fancy (and which he comes closest to entering) is closer to porn than crime. There's a fight scene that gets weirdly self-referential, and the narration occasionally plays a bit too faux-profound, like the filmmakers are more fascinated by the fascination with crime than the crime itself. It's a little arch, sometimes just distancing enough to make one wonder whether the film would work better as a straight caper.

Do you get Gael Garcia Bernal's nifty performance as the conflicted, self-loathing mastermind of the theft in a more conventional heist movie, though? Strictly by the calendar, he's probably getting a bit long in the tooth to be playing someone this young and unformed, but it also heightens the sense that Juan is a little pathetic. Garcia Bernal often leans on his comedy chops to play up how Juan is pulled between his disgust for the system that the museum represents but how his efforts to escape can't help but feed the worst parts of it, dumbfounded by how nothing is as simple as actually stealing things seems to be. He's just manic enough to string the action along, just grounded enough for the audience to recognize his confusion. It positions Leonardo Ortizgris as the sensible counterpart, and he does that well, a passive presence whose nagging guilt is never far from the surface. Bernardo Velasco and Simon Russell Beale fill more distinct niches well.

Juan's confusion often applies to the film itself, which is so pulled between the legendary nature of the crime and the hapless nature of its perpetrators that it has to knowingly fudge the details, but too honest not to make sure the audience knows that's what's going on. It's never not interesting, and often insightful in how it seemingly doesn't know how to confront how to handle being inside a compromised world.

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originally posted: 11/05/18 06:21:43
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