The Unexpected Life (La vida inesperada): Film Review

La vida inesperada Still - H 2014
Ruleta Media

La vida inesperada Still - H 2014

A wasted opportunity, largely because of a script which seems unable to decide whether it wants to deliver romance or reality.

A Spain-U.S. co-produced romantic comedy about two Spanish cousins living and loving in New York.

Setting two of Spain’s finest character actors loose in the streets of the Big Apple should surely have generated sparks, but sadly that’s not the case with The Unexpected Life. Despite its title’s promise of surprises, Jorge Torregrossa’s follow-up to the entirely different The End is actually a predictable, old-fashioned drama which fails to properly exploit its intriguing trans-Atlantic premise. It delivers little except a clutch of decent performances, and even they are hampered by issues which should have been dealt with at the scripting stage. Despite all that, the project has a high-enough profile to generate offshore sales to Spain-friendly territories, with some form of U.S. distribution seemingly coming built-in.

Primo (Raul Arevelo: the word means “cousin” in Spanish, and that’s what he’s referred to as throughout) arrives in New York to visit his cousin Juanito (Javier Camara), who to make ends meet is working in Spanish rep, combining his theater work with jobs as a waiter, and teaching cookery classes, although he can’t cook (the humor rarely rises far above that). He talks every day to his protective, motor-mouthed mom (Gloria Munoz) on Skype: his mother believes his life is more successful than it really is. (In his early work, Pedro Almodovar established the cult of the motor-mouthed madre espanola, and nobody since has done it as well.) Juanito has a loose relationship with Sandra (Carmen Ruiz), but starts to fall more seriously for the theater’s seamstress, the kooky Jojo (Tammy Blanchard, from Blue Jasmine).

About to be married back in Spain, Primo is unsure about taking the plunge and is in New York for some breathing space, whilst at the same time vaguely looking for work in finance. His romantic interest is Holly (Sarah Sokolovic).

The cross-cultural issues so potently dealt with in the recent 10,000 KM, another Spain-U.S. romance, are here, but diluted by comparison. Especially through the character of Juanito, Elvira Lindo’s script -- Lindo, who spends half her time in New York, is a high profile writer and journalist in Spain -- the film explores the pains and uncertainties of exile in brief moments of insight (“Everything is tougher for a foreigner”). They are, however, lost in scenes and conversations that often to go on far too long -- like the film itself, from twenty minutes could have been cut -- and which slide too easily into cliche. However beautiful a shot of a couple kissing on a ferry against a Manhattan backdrop may be, it’s still what it is.

Camara and Arevalo have never delivered a bad performance between them, and this is no exception, with Camara giving a more nuanced, complex version of the highly-strung, agitated and slightly camp persona he often plays, often to very enjoyable effect. Arevalo is unusually low key, but then Primo is by far the less interesting character: quite what he’s really doing in New York, at the emotional level, remains as unclear to the audience as it does to himself. Sokolovic’s character similarly suffers from lack of definition, meaning that their relationship is soggy rather than sparky: Blanchard is engagingly insecure, but it could be time to look seriously at an embargo on kooky females in NY-based romances.

Spanish audiences who have had to watch the film in its dubbed version (most English-language movies in Spain are still dubbed) have complained about how ridiculous it is to have an essentially bilingual movie like this one done in a single language. That’s true, but even seeing the film in its original two languages is problematic in credibility terms, for the simple reason that neither Juanito nor Primo, especially since the latter has only just arrived in the U.S., makes a single grammatical mistake when speaking English. Their English is implausibly flawless. Perhaps this choice has been made to facilitate viewer comprehension, perhaps it's just the way these things have long been done, but in this new language-savvy world we're in, surely it's time to start getting these things right. A few judicious errors, introduced into the the dialogue by someone who knew both English and Spanish well, would have done far less harm than good. There are smart, elegant ways of dealing with this, but Lindo has not used them.

The Unexpected Life at least avoids cultural stereotyping: neither of the the Spaniards are “typically Spanish.”The vision of New York that Kiko de la Rica’s photography supplies, with shots up skyscrapers from the sidewalk and beautiful skyscapes, particularly during one balcony scene, is lush but undistinctive. As with so much else about the film -- the characterization, the dialogue -- it’s the telling detail that’s missing, though the shabby, gaudy underworld of N.Y. indie theater is convincingly rendered.

On the plus side, the score by Lucio Godoy and Federico Jusid (best known as the co-composer for Juan Jose Campanella’s Oscar-winning The Secret in Their Eyes) is a terrific piano and orchestra pastiche of Gershwin, one which is however overused -- and which raises a threatening specter in the form of Woody Allen’s defining Big Apple romcom, Manhattan.

Production: Ruleta Media, La Vida Inesperada, LVI Inc
Cast: Javier Camara, Raul Arevalo, Carmen Ruiz, Tammy Blanchard, Sarah Sokolovic
Director: Jorge Torregrossa
Producers: Leonel Vieira, Lourdes Reyna, Adam Folk
Executive producers: Beatriz Bodegas, Pedro Pastor, Rene Bastian, Linda Moran, Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso
Screenwriter: Elvira Lindo
Director of photography: Kiko de la Rica
Production designer: Alexandra Schaller
Editor: Alejandro Lazaro
Music: Lucio Godoy, Federico Jusid
Sound: Daniel Urdiales
Wardrobe: Rocío Pastor
Sales: Ruleta Media
No rating, 107 minutes