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Rio Sex Comedy -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Press notes explain that veteran actors from several countries along with local non-actors semi-improvised their roles in Jonathan Nossiter's "Rio Sex Comedy," which moves from swank high rises and clinics to the dangerous slums of one of the world's most fascinating cities, Rio de Janeiro. Furthermore, Nossiter made this a communal shot with filmmakers, actors and key technicians jointly possessing a ownership stake in the film, One hopes the psychic rewards were great since the financial ones will be minimal.

"Rio Sex Comedy" has plenty of Rio - the best thing about the movie - but not much sex and very little comedy. It's more a bewildering mess from a high intelligent American director indulging himself a little experimentation in his adopted city. The film may never get off the festival circuit other than in the countries behind the co-production, Brazil and France.

Nossiter, who wrote and directed, wants to mix documentary and scripted scenes that all whirl around notions of beauty, race, class and sexual attraction, among other themes. Consequently, the film is both too ambitious and very poorly focused.

It's very hard to pin down who the characters are supposed to be since they all act in such erratic manners. Perhaps another theme here is the tropical sun's effect on expats.

Bill Pullman plays the U.S. Ambassador as if he were a petulant child sent to summer camp. After a week in Rio, he has no idea why he's there or how to behave. Of course, he shouldn't be in Rio anyway since the U.S. Embassy is in Brasilia. When a filmmaker fudges things like this, you wonder what else he is mis-reporting about his adopted country.

Anyway the Ambassador escapes his limo to run into a favela, one of Rio's hillside slums where no diplomat would last long. Only Nossiter portrays the favela as one big happy and misunderstood homeland albeit with gangsters and drug dealers. Fortunately, the errant ambassador gets rescued, in a fashion, by Fisher Stevens, who supposedly conducts tours of the slums for busloads of tourists.

Irene Jacob plays a French filmmaker making a PC film about dark-skinned servants that means to scold Brazilians about their class snobbery and abuse. When her long-suffering husband (Jean-Marie Roulot) brings his irresponsible cameraman-brother (Jerome Kircher) over from France to help shoot her doc, she takes an immediate dislike to him and then beds him as often as she can. Oh, those naughty French.

Then there is Charlotte Rampling's British plastic surgeon, who flees a stultifying marriage to instantly become "Rio's top plastic surgeon." Only she spends her entire time talking people out of going under her knife. A son shows up but she insists that she's the teenager, indulging in sex with strangers, while he must play the indulgent parent. Oh, those naughty, frustrated English.

And so the cultural stereotypes go. One Brazilian woman escapes stereotyping if only because she is so implausible. Newcomer Dani Dams plays an Indian native discovered by the Yank tour guide up the Amazon. He falls madly in love with her and imports her whole family to his hillside enclave. She learns English in about five minutes and suddenly wants to become a TV soap star.

More "madcap" comedy ensues when the Ambassador forms an NGO to put Christo-like wraps over the favelas and a whore's gangster pals kick the French husband out of the favela wearing only his underpants.

Nossiter appears to be expressing comic ambivalence over do-gooders in foreign climes and expats in general. Although it is hard to say exactly what the film intends since it really isn't articulate about any of this. Scenes tend to wonder all over the place.

If Nossiter truly shot 300 hours of footage as, again, the press notes claim, perhaps he simply chose the wrong scenes.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Cinema Dependant with Primo Filmes
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Bill Pullman, Irene Jacob, Fisher Stevens, Daniela Dams, Jerome Kircher, Jean-Marc Roulot, Mary Sheyla, Dani Dams
Director/screenwriter: Jonathan Nossiter
Producers: Jonathan Nossiter, Matias Mariani
Executive producers: Philippe Carcassonne, Santiago Amigorena, Francois Sauvagnargues, Gilles Baudoin, Flavio Ramos Tambellini
Director of photography: Ludomir Bakchev
Production designer: Ze Luca
Editor: Sophie Brunet, Jonathan Nossiter
Sales: Cinetic Media, eOne Ent
No rating, 125 minutes