As Luck Would Have It: Berlin Film Review

Berlinale Film Festival
Salma Hayek and Eduardo Casanova
Salma Hayek is the saving grace of this scattershot satire about a media feeding frenzy and one man’s insane bid to capitalize on his misfortune.

Alex de la Iglesia's dark satire of media madness stars Salma Hayek and Spanish TV comic Jose Mota as a married couple thrust into the global spotlight by a freak accident.

BERLIN – A high-concept melodrama that satirizes the predatory nature of a media and public eager to feed on real people’s tragedies, As Luck Would Have It might have worked better with an impeccable stylist and outré humorist like Pedro Almodovar in charge. But with Alex de la Iglesia at the unsteady wheel, this intermittently entertaining film – which either pays homage to or steals from Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole – never quite settles on a tone.

Since being discovered by the Almodovar brothers, who produced his first feature, Accion Mutante, in 1993, de la Iglesia has directed a string of films that aggressively target cult success but almost invariably fall a tad short. While the gleeful gore and comic-strip violence that are part of his trademark are absent here, other staples such as the careening action, demented subversive humor and taste for slapstick are represented.

In what seems an odd collaboration, de la Iglesia is working from a screenplay by Randy Feldman, who specialized, in the late-‘80s and 1990s, in vehicles for fading action or comedy stars – Tango & Cash (Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell), Nowhere to Run (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Metro (Eddie Murphy).

At the root of Feldman’s script is the genuine – and very much in tune with these times – anguish of a man who defines himself as a loser. Jobless, robbed of his dignity and unaided by former friends and associates, he is driven by desperation to attempt to exploit personal disaster in a misguided bid to provide for his family.

Roberto (Jose Mota) had one moment of glory in the advertising business 20 years ago, when he came up with a catchy slogan for Coca-Cola that made millions. (That slogan provides the film’s original Spanish title, La Chispa de la Vida, which translates as “The Spark of Life.”) Now, he’s depressed and traipsing from one thankless interview to the next, propped up emotionally by his loving wife Luisa (Salma Hayek in the film’s best performance).

After a crushing morning in which he endures physical humiliation and the refusal of yet another old colleague to help him, Roberto on a nostalgic whim drives to Cartagena to revisit the place where he and Luisa honeymooned. But the hotel has been torn down and replaced by a new museum annexed to a Roman amphitheater. During the press opening, he wanders around on the site and, in a bizarre accident, falls from a scaffold and lands with an iron rod embedded in the back of his skull.

Immobilized until doctors can agree on a safe procedure, Roberto becomes the center of an instant media circus, with press and public gathering in the appropriately gladiatorial arena. Still thinking like an ad man and able to use his cell phone, Roberto contacts an agent, Johnny (Fernando Tejero), who starts negotiating for exclusive TV interview rights. But Johnny knows that, like the Chilean miners, Roberto’s story dies the minute he gets saved.

When Luisa arrives and sees the very real danger her husband is in, she attempts to stop the madness. But Roberto will not be dissuaded, so she takes steps to give him what he wants, at the same time refusing to let the family’s anguish become a public spectacle.

The film skewers the savagery not only of the media, but also of craven officials such as the mayor and the museum director, willing to think only in terms of how Roberto’s plight could damage their careers. But the satire lacks subtlety and bite, either hitting easy targets or missing altogether. Pulling off this balance of dark comedy with real human suffering requires a finesse that eludes de la Iglesia. The film seems uncertain whether to favor campy melodrama, idiosyncratic social commentary or full-blown tragedy.

There’s similarly little cohesion to the visual style. The lush orchestral sounds of Joan Valent’s high-suspense score are perhaps the production’s most consistent element.

Television comic Mota makes a likable martyr, but his behavior is erratic or often just plain stupid, even by the addled standards of a guy with a spike jabbing his brain. That makes him a frustrating central character. While she disappears for a long stretch of the action, Hayek’s Luisa is the real anchor here, bringing heroic nobility to her suffering that recalls Carmen Maura’s roles in vintage Almodovar.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special)

Production companies: Al Fresco Enterprises, Trivision, La Ferme Productions, in association with Double Nickel Entertainment

Cast: Jose Mota, Salma Hayek, Blanca Portillo, Juan Luis Galiardo, Fernando Tejero, Manuel Tallafe, Santiago Segura, Antonio Garrido, Carolina Bang, Eduardo Casanova, Nerea Camacho, Joaquin Climent, Nerea Camacho

Director: Alex de la Iglesia

Screenwriter: Randy Feldman

Producers: Andres Vicente Gomez, Ximo Perez

Executive producers: Jennette Kahn, Adam Richman, Randy Feldman

Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica

Production designer: Adriana Serrano

Music: Joan Valent

Costume designer: Cristina Rodriguez

Editor: Pablo Blanco

Sales agent: Six Sales

No rating, 98 minutes