Rags to Riches, Mexican Style
2 & ½ popcorns
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
It is to Óscar Jaenada’s notable credit that his impersonation/depiction of Cantinflas completely convinces us that he was indeed Mexico’s most famous and beloved comic film star, even if, unfortunately, much of the humor will be lost on English-speaking audiences. We take the story’s word for it that he was very funny, and recognize the characteristic angst he shares with our own Pagliaccis. But too little of the icon’s pun-filled patter translates. Otherwise, director Sebastian del Amo’s traditionally assembled biography is convivially entertaining and educative.
Alternating between English with Spanish subtitles and vice versa, the saga begins with the lanky young lad, born to poverty in Mexico City, circa 1911, trying his hand at boxing…a short-lived episode that leads him to a menial helper’s job in a tent show. There, where he meets the Russian émigré dancer, Valentina (Ilse Salas), with whom he will share his life, he finds his true calling. The film then details the familiar showbiz road that leads the quick-witted comedian to a storied career that becomes a major cornerstone of the emerging Mexican film industry.
Taking the tack that it is Cantinflas’s destiny to star in “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1956), the filmmaker intersperses the title character’s tale with Mike Todd’s Hollywood travail to get said movie produced, ultimately dovetailing the two fates. Along the way, Mr. del Amo, who wrote the screenplay with Edui Tijerina, peppers the landscape both north and south of the border with history, gossip, movie stars and the moguls who try to make or break them. We get the customary glimpse into motion picture politics.
Michael Imperioli does an OK job as Todd, the successful Broadway producer determined to prove he can also grab the brass ring in Tinseltown. Since he is recruiting every celebrity he can to cameo in his planned spectacular, or at least attend the red carpet premiere, we even get a peek at Elizabeth Taylor, purple eyes and all. With all due respect to Bárbara Mori, a pretty woman in her own right, the brief portrayal reaffirms how truly beautiful the real Liz was. We also meet the thespic reincarnation of no less than Charlie Chaplin, and a handful of others.
Point of disclosure: Lest I be exposed as a charlatan, feigning an erudite familiarity with the personality in question, it is only to the movie’s credit that I might now have a working knowledge of Cantinflas. I recommend it for that purpose, especially if you agree that most Americans know too little of the history and culture that resides above and below us. Heretofore I relied solely on the say-so of Mario Cabrera, a Guatemalan exchange student at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College and a wit in his own right, who occasionally regaled me of Cantinflas’s genius.
Pity is, Mario old pal if you’re out there, to grasp the satiric nuances of your comic idol, one needs a lot more experience with the Latin tongue than being able to order from a Spanish menu …there even a shortcoming, I must admit, that has considerably limited my gustatory experience. Compounding the frustration, an education deficient in Mexico’s stormy past leaves me unprepared to appreciate the ins and outs of Cantinflas’s influence thereof. Too bad you couldn’t see it with me, Mario. I would have enjoyed the maxim-filled lesson it would have engendered.
That said, apart from the era-evoking atmosphere courtesy of some decent art direction, “Cantinflas” breaks no new ground in relating its streets to stardom yarn, replete with the typical backlash and marital problems that inevitably must attend whenever a star is born. Still, Mr. Jaenada’s representation is so personable that, for a moment, we think perhaps his trip from rags to riches might circumvent the Sirens of fame and their jading charms.
Equally remarkable, thanks to the makeup folks and an eerie resemblance that doubtlessly played no small part in winning him the role, Jaenada, who portrayed The Spaniard in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (2011), is a dead ringer for Cantinflas (née Mario Moreno). But supporting performances take a backseat to the strong lead, often to a fault. Playing his wife, attractive Ilse Salas is only as credible as the stereotype allows.
Likewise, while Michael Imperioli’s Mike Todd does what the script asks, some more demanding and informatively written lines for this also very charismatic personality would have given the film the oomph it needed to make it a fuller experience.
Granted, director de Amo’s studious and competent homage relates a long overdue chapter in movie lore. It’s just too bad he couldn’t intertwine a humorously contemporary narrative to augment the laughs while still conveying the comedy and innovation that has come to be synonymous with “Cantinflas.” And there, to borrow the subject’s pet phrase, is the rub.
“Cantinflas,” rated PG, is a Pantelion Films release directed by Sebastian del Amo and stars Óscar Jaenada, Michael Imperioli and Ilse Salas. Running time: 102 minutes