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CANNES — Uruguay, a country moviegoers rarely hear from, took home the Un Certain Regard prize for originality at Cannes in 2003 for the comedy “Whisky.” The country is in the running this year to win the even more coveted Camera d’Or for best first film with Alvaro Brechner’s pleasant though oddly empty neo-Western “Mal dia para pescar” (“Bad Day to Go Fishing”), part of the Critics Week selection.
Putting an unusual spin on the theme of aging outsiders going for one last coup, the film is watchable and smoothly made but lacks the tonal confidence and sense of purpose it needs to leave a lasting impression. Overseas boxoffice potential seems limited, though the rarity of a Uruguyan film might pique cinephile interest. “Pescar” could be a plausible entry in festivals geared toward Latin American cinema or variations on the Western.
The movie tells the story of Orsini (Spanish-Scottish actor Gary Piquer), an “impresario” who arrives in a small town with his protege, a one-time German wrestling champion named Jacob van Oppen (the Finnish Jouko Ahola, winner of the World’s Strongest Man in 1997 and 1999). Orsini’s scheme is to lure spectators to a duel at which any challenger who succeeds in taking down van Oppen in three minutes will net $1,000. It’s a revisionist Western setup (minus the guns and horses), with two rootless, over-the-hill heroes ambling into a new town for one final, emblematically masculine task.
The pair’s plan is threatened when a local woman (Antonella Costa) offers up her muscular husband to face off against van Oppen, who is nursing sore muscles, a nasty cough and an even nastier alcohol habit. There’s also the irksome reality that Orsini and van Oppen are flat broke.
The film is briskly paced, nicely lensed and engagingly quirky in parts. Brechner has fun showing the two newcomers becoming a part of the small-town fabric: Orsini flirts and knocks back drinks in the neighborhood saloon, and van Oppen weight-trains at a community theater, lifting heavy objects in front of curious crowds.
But there’s something vaguely inconsequential and superficial about “Pescar,” as distinctive as it seems. The film plays on prototypical Western themes — antiheroes, redemption, honor, alcoholism, legends facing their mortality — and reprocesses them into an ostensibly unusual story but comes up with few new things to say about them or novel ways to visualize them.
Even more problematic is the film’s tone, which fluctuates hazily from tongue in cheek to sincere before ending up in bland, noncommittal territory. The material would have benefited from a more decisive treatment — if Brechner, who co-adapted the movie from Juan Carlos Onetti’s short story, had gone either very comic or very dark, for example. As it is, “Pescar” is clever enough and easy to watch but never manages to shake a certain air of futility, a nagging “So what?” quality.
Performances are fine, and Western-style music adds to the feeling that the movie is striving to reinterpret a genre — with somewhat unsatisfying results.
Production: Baobab Films, Expresso Films, Telespan 2000
Cast: Gary Piquer, Jouko Ahola, Antonella Costa, Cesar Troncoso, Bruno Aldecosea
Director: Alvaro Brechner
Screenwriter: Alvaro Brechner, Gary Piquer, Juan Carlos Onetti
Producer: Alvaro Brechner, Tomas Cimadevilla, Virginia Hinze
Executive producer: Adolfo Blanco
Director of photography: Alvaro Gutierrez
Production designer: Gustavo Ramirez
Music: Mikel Salas
Editor: Teresa Font
No rating, 100 minutes
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