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Billing itself as an “anti-romantic comedy,” Fugly! is a hodgepodge of cartoonish character types, some more sharply drawn than others. At the center of the unconvincing romance is a nice-ish Bronx boy who grows up to be an exploitation-pic star and lovelorn vlogger, pining for the one who got away. Given that he’s played by John Leguizamo, an actor with a reputation for trenchant stage pieces (he also co-scripted and produced), it’s a surprisingly generic part.
A few zany and well-deployed turns of phrase generate some laughs, and the cast is game. But the pieces don’t all fit in this loose assemblage of showbiz spoof, family comedy and on-and-off love story. The feature is bound to find brighter prospects on VOD, where it bows just before Thanksgiving, than in its limited theatrical release.
With echoes of Annie Hall, the screenplay by Leguizamo and Kathy DeMarco centers on an ethnic/WASP dynamic, giving it a Latino spin. Instead of Alvy and Annie, we get “ghetto nerd” Jesse and neurotic uptown girl Lara (Radha Mitchell), who meet in the drama department at Vassar. A first date ends in jail, she disappears from his life, and he yearns for her until their paths cross again, 20 years later. By that point he’s unhappily married to a vulgarly ambitious fellow actor (Rosie Perez), and Lara is dating a fellow psychologist, underplayed to a T by Griffin Dunne; presenting Lara with a single calla lily, he’s the epitome of ostentatious modesty.
The lukewarm saga of supposed soul mates gets a framing device that feels like too little too late in terms of zeitgeist commentary: Despondent over losing Lara a second time, Jesse announces a countdown to suicide on his vlog. The combination of unpersuasive vlogging and copious voiceover narration allows Jesse to provide backstory and updates on his state of mind, none of which is compelling.
The movie’s glances at Internet culture, psychotherapy and performance art are joshes more than skewerings. Its observations on Latino stereotypes in film and television are hardly news, although Leguizamo and Perez provide just the right ironic excitement when their characters land their first TV roles, Drug Dealer and Crack Whore No. 3.
In the thinly conceived part of the agent who puts them on the C-list map, Ally Sheedy can do little more than deliver the required bottom-line-obsessed lizardly cold-bloodedness. Helping her to build the brand is Jesse’s memoir-publishing mother (an especially good Olga Merediz). Yul Vazquez and Tomas Milian have stock parts as, respectively, Jesse’s hotshot brother and his quirkily sage grandfather.
Alfredo De Villa, who worked with Leguizamo on Nothing Like the Holidays, directs the unwieldy mix with energy, and the accomplished director of photography Nancy Schreiber gives the New York locations a low-key freshness. The sporadic use of animation by Bill Plympton is more whimsical-decorative than edgy.
If that’s a letdown, it suits a movie that strikes a few satiric poses but isn’t above a happy-lovers montage. The life lessons that cap the story arrive unearned, and certainly unfelt. Rather than pushing against boundaries, Fugly!, like its protagonist, just wants to be loved.
Production companies: Rebel Films in association with Bigel Entertainment and Contento Films
Cast: John Leguizamo, Radha Mitchell, Rosie Perez, Griffin Dunne, Yul Vazquez, Ally Sheedy, Perrey Reeves, Tomas Milian, Olga Merediz, Tom Tammi, Donna Mitchell
Director: Alfredo De Villa
Screenwriters: John Leguizamo, Kathy DeMarco
Producers: John Leguizamo, Laura Knight, Danny Bigel, Catalina Hoyos Lago
Executive producers: Abhi Rastogi, Ron Gell
Director of photography: Nancy Schreiber
Production designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume designer: Richard Owings
Editors: Jaime Valdueza, John Coniglio
Composer: Michael A. Levine
Animation: Bill Plympton
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
No MPAA rating, 85 minutes
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