‘Cantinflas’: Film Review

Cantinflas Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Pantelion Films

Cantinflas Still - H 2014

A frustratingly mundane attempt to tell a fascinating story

Biopic of the legendary Mexican comedian

It’s not too much to expect a biopic to have something of the character of its subject. So it is disappointing that the charm, spontaneity and wit, which were the hallmarks of the immensely popular Mexican comedian Mario Moreno Reyes, aka Cantinflas, are missing from this film about the man who Charlie Chaplin once called the greatest comedian in the world. Built from a script that misguidedly tries to squeeze about a quarter of a century into about three quarters of the running time, and failing to scrape away much of the surface legend to reveal what lay beneath, Cantinflas hops from cliche to cliche with lazy thoughtlessness.

It is redeemed somewhat by looking really good and by a couple of decent performances, especially by the, to some, strange choice of the non-Mexican actor Oscar Jaenada, who's always vigorous and alert. But even then there is the frustrating sense of what could have been had the script tackled the man instead of lazily recycling the myth. Its subject’s appeal should mean wide exposure for Cantinflas in Spanish-speaking territories, with Pantelion's U.S. distribution pickup catering for the burgeoning American/Hispanic market.

Director Sebastian del Amo's follow-up to the more interesting The Fantastic World of Juan Orol follows two storylines. The first covers just one week, counting down the days until the producer, Mike Todd (an amusing Michael Imperioli), has to deliver, alongside his backer John (Roger Cudney) a press conference about a film for which he so far hasn’t managed to sign a single star. One of the names on Todd’s list is Cantinflas’, and the film is Around the World in Eighty Days.

The second starts with the young Cantiflas unsuccessfully trying his hand at boxing and bullfighting before being drawn into stand-up comedy in the tent shows of the period, coming under the wing of Estanislao Schilinsky (rising star Luis Gerardo Mendez), and falling in love with Valentina (Ilse Salas, delivering the film’s strongest performance after Jaenada’s). Cantinflas’ rise continues pretty much unhindered: “our life has completely changed”, Valentina observes unnecessarily, once fame and fortune have arrived.

Cantinflas’ script contains basic errors. The decision to devote so much of the running time to Todd’s story, and in such a methodical, countdown way, is, to say the least, strange. First, because although it’s presumably supposed to generate suspense, which ripples across the whole film, it does not. What little suspense there is exists only in the Todd narrative, because Cantinflas doesn’t seem to care whether he gets the Hollywood job or not.

Second, Cantinflas appears to ride happily over all potential obstacles while Todd has to overcome them, which might make the audience feel closer to Todd than to the hero (particularly when the round-off bios at the end reveal that Todd died a year after 80 Days’ Oscar triumph. Third, because the schematic shuttling back and forth between the two adds nothing to either but breaks the flow of both. And fourth, because the big scene in which the two stories come together is toe-curlingly risible.

There is, too, confusion in the script about what it’s supposed to be doing. Cantinflas is a film that is seduced by the idea of stardom, Hollywood stardom in particular. What feels like dozens of stars, American and Mexican, get brief visual nods. Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick) himself plays a small, key and implausible role; Brando (Jon-Michael Ecker) and Liz Taylor (Barbara Mori) are trotted out; one surreal moment has Sinatra playing the piano and turning to gurn at camera. It all feels like an unsubtle attempt to appeal to the American market.

In Cantinflas, the pinnacle of the actor’s success is the moment he won his Golden Globe for 80 Days. This is indeed the zenith of this international fame, but as a culmination it sits uneasily in a film that sells Cantinflas as proud of his working-class roots and as somewhat blase about Hollywood.

In real life, the actor was apparently anxious for U.S. recognition, but in international terms it was all downhill after 80 Days. The film barely addresses any darker side to his character, apart from the cliched line that after fame hits, he doesn’t spend enough time with his family. At one point, when he learns that he and Valentina cannot have children, he leaves her sobbing on her own to go out into the garden and stand cinematically in the pouring rain. It’s the act of a schmuck, and it does hint at a darker side to Cantinflas that did exist but that this biopic never tackles. If it had, we might have been watching something more interesting: This character portrayal seems to have been worked up from a cursory glance at Wikipedia.

Visually, production designer Christopher Lagunes and DP Carlos Hidalgo do well to render stylized versions of the dark, chaotic Mexico in which Cantinflas pays his dues and of the whiter-than-white expanses of their imagined 50s Hollywood.

Production company: Kenio Films
Cast: Oscar Jaenada, Michael Imperioli, Ilse Salas, Luis Gerardo Mendez, Roger Cudney
Director: Sebastian del Amo
Screenwriters: Edui Tijerina, Sebastian del Amo
Producers: Vidal Cantu, Adolfo Franco
Executive producers: Jose Alverde, Gonzalo Barrutieta, Carlos del Rio, Eduardo Graniello, Angel Losada Moreno, Braulio Arsuaga Losada
Francisco Moguel, Daniel Olivares, Oscar Vilchis
Director of photography: Carlos Hidalgo
Production designer: Christopher Lagunes
Costume designer: Gabriela Fernandez
Editor: Nacho Ruiz-Capillas
Composer: Roque Banos
Sales: Panteleon
No rating, 106 minutes