CANNES – It’s easy to see what drew Pedro and Agustin Almodovar to produce Argentinean writer-director Damian Szifron‘s Wild Tales — the affinity is evident from the first of the six thematically connected stories that make up this subversive reflection on out-of-control behavior. It’s there in the off-kilter humor, in the stylish visuals and bold use of music, and in the affection for ordinary people pushed to extraordinary extremes. But Szifron’s voice is nonetheless very much his own, a mischievously blunt response to a culture of inescapable corruption, economic and social inequality and injustice.
While Warner Bros. has the film in Latin America, Spain and France, Sony Pictures Classics closed a deal on the eve of its Cannes premiere for North America, Australia and New Zealand. SPC has a long and fruitful association with the Almodovars’ El Deseo company. But it also seems a smart move to get into business with a maverick talent like Szifron, even if his first film to land a top-tier international festival platform is uneven, occasionally curdling when it turns dark. But Wild Tales opens and closes with a bang, and at its best is a riotously funny and cathartic exorcism of the frustrations of contemporary life.
The first three episodes, Pasternak, The Rats and Road to Hell, all generate huge laughs and share a delicious harmony despite being quite different in tone. They run from wacky to macabre to pulpy, and all involve payback fueled by festering rage.
Like Almodovar’s recent mile-high-club comedy I’m So Excited, the opener takes place on board a plane, where a pretty runway model (Maria Marull) indulges the older music critic (Dario Grandinetti) sitting across the aisle with some harmless flirtation. It turns out they share a connection via one Gabriel Pasternak, an aspiring musician who was the model’s first boyfriend and whose confidence was once crushed by a withering critique from her new acquaintance. In an inspired bit of comic absurdism, seemingly everyone on the plane has crossed paths with under-achieving Pasternak, who remains unseen but gets his moment of glory. It’s a wicked vignette about the revenge of the perennial loser, and the perfect pre-titles bite to kick off the movie.
Those titles themselves are also sublime, with each credit backed by a gorgeous animal kingdom image — some ferocious and some meek. It seems apt that Szifron’s writer-director card is a sly fox crouched down ready to pounce. His prey is everything that’s broken in 21st century Argentina.
In The Rats, a waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) at a roadside dive finds herself serving the arrogant loan shark (Cesar Bordon) who drove her father to suicide and prompted her mother to pack them off to another town. Now he’s in line for mayor. “Bastards run the world,” says the take-charge cook (Rita Cortese), which is all the justification she needs to spice up his egg and chips with an unorthodox ingredient.
Road to Hell has a touch of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino in its escalating violence, though the kinship never feels like imitation. The mother of all road rage episodes, it starts when a self-satisfied, slick-suited, Audi-driving jerk (Leonardo Sbaraglia) shouts “Redneck!” at the guy (Walter Donado) who’s been crawling along in front, blocking him from overtaking on a quiet stretch of mountain road. Big mistake, and not just because of a defecation scene that makes the one in Bridesmaids seem tame.
The next two stories, Bombita and The Bill, are consistent with the film’s themes. But both involve a shift to a more sober tone that lets the air out of the balloon of delirious mayhem created by the opening three episodes.
Bombita centers on a demolition engineer (Ricardo Darin) whose car keeps getting towed from streets without visible no-parking signage. This gets under his skin, convincing him that the city is running an extortionate racket, and he’s not going to take it anymore. This story is the first to offer something approaching redemption, when he becomes an unlikely folk hero. But the payoff lacks punch and the satirical comedy feels a touch too muted after the earlier peaks.
The darkest of the stories is The Bill. A wealthy patriarch (Oscar Martinez) determines to buy his family’s way out of trouble by paying an employee (German de Silva) to take the fall for a hit-and-run accident in which his pampered son (Alan Daicz) was the driver. The plotline recalls Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s 2008 feature Three Monkeys, as well as the Richard Gere thriller Arbitrage. But familiarity is less a problem than this being tonally just too much of an odd man out. The satisfaction of watching privileged folks squirm keeps it absorbing, but the episode ultimately becomes a downer.
Losing this section wouldn’t necessarily hurt Wild Tales, which despite its thematic cohesion doesn’t quite sustain two full hours.
However, Szifron turns things around in the hilarious kicker, ‘Til Death Do Us Part, during which the festive wedding reception of Romina (Erica Rivas) and Ariel (Diego Gentile) dissolves into chaos when the bride discovers her groom’s infidelity. An anarchic comic energy runs through this concluding story, and the more scarily messed-up the wronged woman gets, the more endearing Rivas becomes.
The cast is strong throughout, and the good-looking film is crafted in high style, with lots of eye-catching touches from production designer Clara Notari and unconventional camera angles from cinematographer Javier Julia. It also has a wonderful sense of place, from the loneliest backwaters to the densest pockets of Buenos Aires. Wrapping it all up is a terrific spaghetti Western-flavored score from Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla, mixed with invigorating pre-existing music choices.
Production companies: Kramer & Sigman Films, El Deseo, Telefe
Cast: Ricardo Darin, Oscar Martinez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Erica Rivas, Rita Cortese, Julieta Zylberberg, Dario Grandinetti, Maria Marull, Cesar Bordon, Walter Donado, Maria Onetto, Osmar Nunez, Alan Daicz, German de Silva, Diego Gentile
Director-screenwriter: Damian Szifron
Producers: Hugo Sigman, Pedro Almodovar, Agustin Almodovar, Esther Garcia, Matias Mosteirin
Executive producers: Pola Zito, Leticia Cristi
Director of photography: Javier Julia
Production designer: Clara Notari
Costume designer: Ruth Fischerman
Editors: Damian Szifron, Pablo Barbieri
Music: Gustavo Santaolalla
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 122 minutes