'The Laws of Thermodynamics' ('Las Leyes de la Termodinamica'): Film Review | Miami Film Festival 2018

When Harry met Einstein.

Spaniard Mateo Gil's ambitious hybrid, fusing a romantic comedy with a faux documentary about the laws of physics, world premieres at Miami.

Having in recent years delivered a fine Western (Blackthorn) and a thoughtful sci-fier (Realive), former Alejandro Amenabar scripting collaborator Mateo Gil now gives romantic comedy a cerebral twist with the ambitious, playful and ultimately frustrating The Laws of Thermodynamics. The premise that these three immutable universal laws govern not only our physical world but our emotional life, too, is a neat one, but despite its initial promise, Laws fails to take imaginative flight.

Though it is intermittently witty, visually playful and laudable in its attempt to appeal to both head and heart, Laws abandons its characters to its big concept, and you have to wonder what a more perverse imagination, say that of Charlie Kaufman, would have made of it. Netflix has taken international SVOD rights, with non-Spanish availability slated for Aug. 10.

Insecure trainee astrophysicist Manel (Vito Sanz) is the teaching assistant to Profesor Amat (Josep Maria Pou), a friend of the altogether more confident and attractive Pablo (Chino Darin, the son of Roberto, Argentina’s highest-profile actor) and the boyfriend of Raquel (Irene Escolar). Manel is an engaging enough nerd who tends to take over conversations by spouting astrophysics to people — particularly to Elena (Berta Vazquez), a model with actress ambitions for whom he dumps Raquel early on. Newton’s force of attraction is only the first of the multiple connections that Manel will find.

In parallel with Pablo’s on-off relationship with lawyer Eva (Vicky Luengo), Manel’s relationship with Elena traces the standard stop-start trajectory of the insecure-him/unattainable-her romance, following too closely the long-established laws of that genre — though one science that’s missing is the chemistry between the Elena and Manel, who are never quite credible. To the eternal question of whether boy will finally get girl is added the question: Has the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the entropy one, which everybody knows) determined that he will not?

All of the above is the practice, but it feels oddly subservient to the grand theory that Gil seems anxious to communicate to us. This is delivered (at too-great length) by talking head academics in documentary setup who essentially provide, in a range of different accents and with various degrees of enthusiasm, a layperson’s guide to the atoms, the particles and the space-time continuum. If it sounds dry, it is: It could all have been done with a lighter, less literal touch. And Manel’s voiceover is there, too, rather laboriously explaining how the academics’ words apply to the ups and downs of his story with Elena. (It doesn't help either that he seems to prefer his thermodynamics to his girlfriend.)

It’s a risky dramatic strategy, one where the negatives outweigh the positives. On the upside, we get a few moments of neat “hey, I’d never thought of that” insights alongside a user-friendly primer to the history of physics. On the downside, the narrative flow is constantly and unpredictably broken and the links between the science and the storyline are sometimes tenuous and difficult to follow, requiring too much time-consuming explanation. It makes it hard for the viewer to feel involved with the drama. And most bothersome of all, it means that the romance part of the film has to be compressed into less time, with all the inevitable sacrifices.

It seems appropriate that Gil co-scripted Amenabar’s debut Thesis, because sometimes Laws feels like one, often forgetting that there are characters, as well as ideas, to be attended to. Performances are fine, with the watchable Sanz, whose work so far has generally been at the artsier end of the market, giving it his nervous, edgy best and suggesting that he could easily cross over into the comedy mainstream. But other roles lack nuance and depth.

Laws does drag on a bit, but rarely is it dull. This is mostly thanks to its great visual flair, with a variety of techniques — split-screen, slow motion and a plethora of sophisticated others — marshaled to bring the theories wittily to life. Such a concept must have represented a challenge to editor Miguel Burgos, who brings it off with real verve; the camera work of DP Sergi Vilanova matches it for elegance. And let’s be honest: It’s just wonderful and weird to see the generally unimaginative world of Spanish comedy referencing the likes of the intellectual titans C.P. Snow and Ernest Rutherford.

Production companies: Zeta Cinema, Atresmedia Cine, On Cinema 2017
Cast: Vito Sanz, Berta Vazquez, Chino Darin, Vicky Luengo, Juan Batancourt, Irene Escolar, Josep Maria Pou
Director-screenwriter: Mateo Gil
Producers: Francisco Ramos, Mikel Lejarza, Mercedes Gamero
Executive producers: Rafael Lopez Manzanara, Rosa Perez
Director of photography: Sergi Vilanova
Art director: Juan Pedro de Gaspar
Costume designer: Clara Bilbao
Editor: Miguel Burgos
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting directors: Ana Sainz-Trapaga, Patricia Alvarez de Miranda
Venue: Miami International Film Festival
Sales: Atresmedia Cine

100 minutes