The Coens, the Dardennes, the Quays. Filmmaker brothers tend to come in matched sets, working together at all times. Yet it is eminently clear in Carlos Cuarón's debut feature as a director that he is not receiving any tips or aid from his famous sibling Alfonso, although that man did serve as his producer; and although it doesn't seem likely that Carlos is bound for the same heights that Alfonso, his Rudo y Cursi is nonetheless the work of a fine and talented artist, who I expect shall have a long career as a maker of solid, if not hugely significant, movies.
Reuniting Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, the stars of Alfonso Cuarón's 2001 artistic breakthrough Y tu mamá también (co-written by the two Cuaróns) is the story of two half-brothers, Tato and Beto, living with their mother and extended family in a dodgy hole somewhere in rural Mexico. The men have very different lives, for all that; Beto has a wife named Toña (Adriana Paz) who's growing increasingly impatient with his unchecked gambling problem, while Tato has no responsibilites whatever, and a pipe dream of moving to the United States and becoming a pop music star. It seems that the only real overlap in their lives is soccer (or football, or fútbol, whatever the hell it's best to call it - I'm a damned American writer, I can't help it), and one afternoon they're out playing in the local dirt field when they're spotted by a talent agent who goes by the name Baton (Guillermo Francella), who figures that despite their age, these two fellows have a real gift for the game. He takes Tato back to Mexico City with him, but it's not long before Tato has whined enough that he drags Beto up as well, and the brothers surprisingly become two of the best players Mexico has: Tato, nicknamed "Cursi" (which, I gather, is a slang word meaning something like "charming"), is Rookie of the Year and one of the best scorers in the league, while Beto, or "Rudo" ("violent"?), proves to be an unassailable goalie.
Ah, but that would all be too happy, too soon, so we in the audience are hardly surprised when Beto turns to cocaine and gambling in a big way; while Tato hooks up with a golddigging TV star girlfriend (Jessica Mas), and uses his new sports fame to become a hopeless novelty singer, performing a godawful Spanish-language cover of "I Want You To Want Me" in a music video where he is dressed like a more flamboyant member of the Village People, and in all this hubbub kind of forgets to keep playing football worth a damn. Things become increasingly bad for them both, but to say more would be to give away the finalé.
The best thing I can say about Carlos Cuarón is this: having selected for himself a powerfully clichéd scenario, he still manages to make it fresh and entertaining for nearly all of the movie's running time. You can predict in the broadest strokes where the plot is going for a good hour before it gets there, but - and this is always the important part - you don't care, because Cuarón directs everything, especially the football matches, with an unobtrusively brisk hand, while letting his two hugely charismatic stars go to town.
I mean, duh. It should be obvious to anyone who's seen Y tu mamá también, or most of the things the two actors have appeared in individually, that García Bernal and Luna are the two big draws here. It's hard to say how interesting Tato and Beto would be, left to their own devices, but that's not an issue we have to confront: they are embodied by two utterly wonderful performers who dig into everything the screenplay offers them and then some. The brothers' relationship is vaguely affectionate and hugely competitive, and Cuarón has thus given his actors a great many colorful and imaginative insults to hurl at one another, and this is plainly something the actors enjoy doing. And they're no worse when they're alone: Luna plays up Beto's short temper and raging personality with something weirdly like charm, for a frankly nasty character, while García Bernal fearlessly jumps into Tato's humiliating cluelessness, and makes it both funny and not a little sad.
Meanwhile, Baton narrates the whole thing as a cross between a fable and an E! True Hollywood Story, and Francella proves to be just as gifted in front of the camera as his two co-stars; he comes across like a wicked but delightful uncle who always gets you into trouble just for the hell of it, but then always convinces you that it was a great joke. He's a dangerous character, kind of, but far too playful to seem that way.
As long as Rudo y Cursi stays in this mode of lighthearted meanness, poking fun at the brothers' inability to handle all the fame and money that get dumped on them, it's a pretty satisfying, if not terribly original movie. And the ending doesn't precisely go bad - the final scene is a perfect button for the rest of the plot, and the anticipated showdown on the field between the two, on opposing teams, ends in pretty much the best way it could. But there is a weirdness that happens, when all of sudden things get Very Serious, and the mob comes into play. And of course, the mob finding its way into a sports movie isn't all that shocking. It just doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the picture very well.
So be it. I still had a good time watching Rudo y Cursi, and its almost but not quite satire of celebrity culture and unnecessary wealth. The whole affair is a bit on the nice & normal side, but Cuarón is a talented man, and he keeps things from dragging when they get too familiar. This isn't much more than a pleasant sports comedy and family drama hybrid, but it's surely entertaining. The very model of a summertime arthouse flick, you might say.