Of Snails and Men (Despre oameni si melci): Film Review

Of Snails and Men Film Still - H 2012

Of Snails and Men Film Still - H 2012

Intermittently droll comedy set in 1992 Romania looks unlikely to repeat its domestic success further afield.

Andi Vasluianu, Monica Bîrl?deanu and Jean-François Stévenin star in a Romanian-French comedy from director Tudor Giurgiu.

An old-fashioned culture-clash workplace comedy about sperm-donation, Romanian/French co-production Of Snails and Men (Despre oameni si melci) yields a reasonable haul of laughs but overall proves more flaccid than penetrating. Emulating director Tudor Giurgiu's previous outing Love Sick (2006), the picture clicked at Romanian box-offices following its Sept. 14 launch and the presence of father-and-son performers Jean-François and Robinson Stévenin in prominent supporting roles will boost prospects in French cinemas early next year. But while Gallic multiplex audiences may possibly respond to this daft take on post-Ceausescu workplace politics, elsewhere its best prospects lie as a small-screen attraction.

Having U.S.-premiered at Chicago's film festival in October, it was selected as the opener for the annual focus on Romanian cinema at New York's Lincoln Center (Nov. 29 and 30). A mostly larkish take on essentially downbeat issues, it does at least provide lively evidence that there's more to Romania than the often dour examples of the much-ballyhooed New Wave which peaked with Cristian Mungiu's 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Festivals seeking undemanding crowdpleasers may want to give it a look.

Mungiu's Palme laureate held the Romanian record for the biggest home-grown opening weekend admission numbers for half a decade until Of Snails and Men arrived, although Iura Lunca?u's Sweet Little Lies eclipsed the latter's figure only a month later. Both films star local pin-up Andi Vasluianu, an appealingly rough-edged presence here as happy-go-lucky union-organizer Gica, who makes an eye-opening first appearance locked in an amorous al fresco clinch with stunning co-worker Manuela (Monica Bîrl?deanu). The pair have adjoined to the rooftop of the provincial auto-factory where they both work to indulge in a little lunchtime hanky-panky, evidently par for the course for the not-so-happily-married "family man" Gica.

As secretary to the firm's bumptious boss Vladimir (Dorel Vi?an), Manuela discovers that the company is in such serious financial trouble -- it's 1992, and Romania's economy is on the skids -- that the only hope is an alliance with a French firm who want to switch the factory's emphasis from making cars to canning snails. The workers, many of whom face being laid off, aren't happy about the bosses' idea of progress, and the resourcefully virile Gica comes up with an unlikely solution involving a Bucharest sperm-bank which may be willing to pay handsomely for donations.

This bizarre development is the main motor of newcomer Ionu? Teianu's screenplay, and though many aspects of both its concept and execution strain credulity (and then some), it is loosely based on actual events, albeit ones which occurred in 2002 rather than a decade earlier. Setting events in 1992 does allow Giurgiu and Teianu to bookend the picture with footage of Michael Jackson's sole, brief visit to Romania, a welcome touch of madcap oddity in what's otherwise a by-the-numbers variant on what are by now very well-thumbed pages from the Full Monty playbook.

Some mildly amusing points are made about Romania's awkward "democratic transition process," though this blandly-shot, unimaginatively-scored affair manages only a so-so attempt to evoke period detail: Gabriel Achim made much more of the country's recent but bygone past with last year's similarly factory-set but audaciously original black comedy Adalbert's Dream.

"The snail itself doesn't have much flavor," as someone remarks here, and Giurgiu's film likewise is always more passably pleasant than particularly vivid or distinctive. The promising escargot angle is generally overlooked in favor of the broader sperm-bank shenanigans, and while the cast do their best with the material -- veteran Vi?an steals most of his scenes as the conniving Vladimir - there's the general sense of a screenplay which can't quite find a way to juggle its various strands, themes and tones. It doesn't help that proceedings dribble away into an underwhelming climax, so that what began with a bang goes out with only a dry chuckle.

Production companies: Libra Film, Agat Films
Cast: Andi Vasluianu,
Monica Bîrl?deanu, Jean-François Stévenin, Dorel Vi?an , Robinson Stévenin
Director: Tudor Giurgiu
Ionu? Teianu
Producers: Tudor Giurgiu, Oana Giurgiu, Patrick Sobelman
Director of photography:
Vivi Dr?gan Vasile
Production designers: Csaba Damokos, Adriana Racasan
Costume designer: Dana Istrate
Vlaicu Golcea
Editor: Nita Chivulescu
Sales: Elle Driver, Paris
No MPAA rating, 93 minutes