“Everybody has three lives,” said Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “public, private and secret.” Like the Paolo Genovese original, which it pretty faithfully copies, Perfect Strangers explores to comic effect the capacity of cellphone technology to blur the limits between our different existences, as a group of friends agree to listen to one another’s messages and calls as they come in during a dinner party. It’s a clever plot device, but one whose ramifications both Genovese and de la Iglesia are happy to skate over the surface of. So although it’s enjoyable to make the acquaintance of the well-played, crowd-pleasing Strangers, the encounter is quickly forgotten.
The canny commercial eye of Telecinco Cinema has found the sweet spot this time, with de la Iglesia’s 14th feature jumping straight to the top of the box office, Spaniards turning out in droves to nervously giggle as their techno-fears play out onscreen. The Weinstein Co. has optioned the English language rights, suggesting that this one is destined primarily for Spanish-language territories.
Events unspool on the night of an eclipse — conveniently, eclipses are times when people go a little crazy, and tonight will be no exception. Spiky psychotherapist Eva (Belen Rueda) and plastic surgeon hubby Alfonso (Eduard Fernandez) are a little older and perhaps wiser than the dinner guests at their central Madrid apartment: a couple in crisis, slimy Antonio (Ernesto Alterio) and brash Ana (Juana Costa), badmouthing each other from the start (and also a couple in real life); taxi driver Lothario Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) and wide-eyed Blanca (Dafne Fernandez), a newcomer to the group, very much in love; and unemployed Pepe (Pepon Nieto, similarly tubby and hirsute to Giuseppe Battiston in the Italian original), who much to everyone’s annoyance turns up late and without the new girlfriend everyone’s anxious to meet.
Early scenes feature much offputting machista talk from the men, which will make them pretty repellent from the start to some audiences. With the idea of spicing things up, and safe in the knowledge that her relationship with Eduardo is secure, Blanca suggests that everyone lay their cellphone on the table so that the others can hear and read their calls and messages: After all, such old friends surely cannot be hiding anything from one another?
But after a prank call from Alfonso, Antonio confides to Pepe that he’s having an affair. He asks Pepe to swap phones for the evening, and the lid comes off. By the end of the evening, after an extended stretch of comedy that is traditionally homophobic in its assumptions and that any English-language remake will have to tackle, all of the characters except one will have their damaging secrets aired.
Strangers hits the comic sweet spot more often than it misses, and the face-offs between Alterio and Nieto have terrific moments. The characters are all familiar and relatable, and in traditional farce style events play out at a slightly frenzied pitch, but the performances go beyond the slick mechanisms and are strong enough to bring something individual to the table.
Standouts are Nieto, who delivers a fine little monologue on technology’s threats to relationships, and Fernandez, who, in a telephone conversation with his 17-year-old daughter Sofia (Beatriz Olivares), delivers the film’s quietest and most memorable scene, a superbly filmed, pin-drop counterpoint to all the farcical hi-jinx that precede and follow it. (Alfonso is the only properly grown-up character, which is a bonus, since in most Spanish comedies there are none to be found.)
Toward the end, there’s a 15-minute stretch where the farce gives way to something darker and the characters seem really to be suffering. But the script abandons that line pretty quickly. Ultimately, Perfect Strangers is completely traditional material, albeit with a clever new twist.
De la Iglesia handles it all with elegance and a sharp, practiced eye, Angel Amoros‘ camera sometimes sweeping dizzyingly around the apartment, sometimes honing in on tell-tale details, all the time skillfully obliging the viewer to forget that we’re essentially watching a single-location movie. (Once all the remakes are out, expect theatrical adaptations.)
Occasionally we move outside onto the terrace to look at the eclipse, which will provide the film with its hard-to-explain twist ending. Emotionally upbeat but dramatically unjustifiable, it at least has the virtue of ensuring that Strangers concludes as expected on the requisite pre-Christmas happy note — an ending that, given all the screaming angst that has preceded it, might be the film’s biggest lie of all.
Production companies: Telecinco Cinema, Nadie es Perfecto, Pokeepsie Films
Cast: Belen Rueda, Eduardo Fernandez, Juana Acosta, Dafne Fernandez, Eduard Fernandez, Pepon Nieto, Ernesto Alterio, Beatriz Olivares
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriter: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, based on the film by Paolo Genovese
Producers: Alvaro Agustin, Ghislain Barrios, Kiko Martinez
Executive producers: Carolina Bang, Paloma Molina
Director of photography: Angel Amoros
Art Director: Jose Luis Arrizabalaga, Biaffra
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Domingo Gonzalez
Composer: Victor Reyes
Casting director: Carmen Utrilla
Sales: Telecinco Cinema