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la Mala, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Cute, not cruel."
4 stars

There are a lot of romantic comedies that start from from premises as ludicrous as that of "A la Mala", but few of them do as well in selling that starting point. It's a goofy little thing, but it's got a cute couple at the center and makes enough nimble steps along the way to be a great deal of fun.

The idea is that actress Maria Laura "Mala" Medina (Aislinn Derbez) has a side gig - she'll flirt with a woman's boyfriend or otherwise provide enough temptation and distraction for men to determine whether they're worth keeping around. It looks like she can quit when she aces an audition for a new television series, but its producer (Daniela Schmidt) demands one last gig - seduce and then dump her ex-boyfriend Santiago (Mauricio Ochmann), both making him understand how she felt and giving her a chance to swoop in and win her back. The trouble is twofold - Mala and Santiago have already met, and she winds up liking the guy.

That's close to the whole deal, and that's fine. The filmmakers don't undermine their premise's simplicity with subplots that don't matter, nor do they feel a particular need to throw additional challenges in Mala's and Santiago's way (there's actually something kind of clever about how the unwanted ex is built right into the setup, but in a way that doesn't require her to be visible and gate on the audience). Instead, director Pedro Pablo Ibarra and writers Issa Lopez & Ari Rosen spend the bulk of the movie on the pair getting to know and like each other, letting their chemistry fuel the movie without jerking the audience back and forth.

Aislinn Derbez as Mala makes this a good bet. One thing that she does better than many leading ladies in this sort of movie is to embrace that Mala can be kind of abrasive and snobbish - heck, her nickname means "cruel" and is not entirely unwarranted (though it's not like you have to fall into the honey trap, guys) - without leaning so far into it that the audience wants her taken down a peg or two. Derbez does the quick swings between confidence and nervousness very well, and has a talent for sneaking optimism into Mala's cynically-passed narration. She's also got a face that's as expressive as it is beautiful, and if she plays a scene bigger than the rest of the cast, it tends to work both in-character for Mala as a born performer and a way to make things a little funnier.

It's easy to overlook the performance Mauricio Ochmann gives alongside her, especially once Santiago is falling for Mala without much reservation. One can almost forget how much fun he is early on, when he adds a knowing wink to the playboy characterization - he's seen enough girls make flimsy excuses to get close to him to have fun playing the game without looking down on the other players. His charm is just oily enough that one can believe he might deserve a bit of Mala-delivered revenge but not so much that he becomes difficult to like. It's a shame that the filmmakers spend so much time making sure we understand he's really a good guy at heart, because Ochmann is kind of like a Mexican Ryan Reynolds - boyishly handsome able to banter well, but a bit bland when all he's being asked for is "nice".

Maybe if he'd had more scenes with Juan Diego Covarrubias as Santiago's personal assistant Alvaro, it would have helped; Covarrubias is playing the Smooth Gay Friend, but he's stealing nearly every scene he's in and making those around him funnier. It's Mala's movie, though, so her buddies (Papile Aurora and Luis Arrieta) get more time. They're deployed well, though - the filmmakers use them to punch up scenes where Mala might seem too self-pitying or mean for the movie to stay fun, and while that may seem like a small thing, there are a lot of movies that don't do it will at all. It's a big part of why A la Mala does well with a silly premise while romantic comedies that seem like slam dunks start to drag much earlier than this one's slight late-scene stumbling.

And even that may play better to those better-versed in Mexican pop culture than I - there are a lot of cameos from folks I've never heard of and jokes about a song that just translated to "Mala is bad at karaoke" for me. Even if you don't get the references, though, this movie is a pretty good time. You can get pretty far on a good-looking couple, some funny scenes, and knowing where a genre's pitfalls are.

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originally posted: 02/28/15 14:46:38
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  27-Feb-2015 (PG-13)



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