Cantinflas (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and some suggestive material
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Oscar Jaeneda, Michael Imperioli, Ilse Salas, Luis Gerardo Mendez, Gabriela DeLaGarza
Director: Sebastian Del Amo
Screenplay: Sebastian Del Amo, Edui Tijerina
Review published August 30, 2014

Mario Moreno, b.k.a. Cantinflas, was a phenomenally successful popular comedian and actor in his native Mexico whose popularity allowed him to cross over very briefly into Hollywood in the mid-1950s, when he co-starred in the Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days. He would earn a Golden Globe for his supporting turn as main sidekick Passepartout.

This bilingual film is half an exploration of the circumstances that led to Cantinflas' involvement in such a high-profile motion picture, and half his own biopic, starting with how he broke into show business in the 1930s with his vaudeville act in the carpas (tent theaters), through his courtship and eventual marriage of Russian performer Valentina Ivanova, his breaking ground in the Mexican film industry, and his commitment to helping the working class and poor from which he was from.

The performance of Oscar Jaenada (PotC: On Stranger Tides, The Losers), whose selection was semi-controversial because he is not Mexican (Jaenada is from Spain), as Cantinflas is perhaps this hit-and-miss film's greatest asset, as he captures the demeanor and physicality to portray the clown-ish and much off-the-cuff public persona, as well as the more serious behind-the-scenes Moreno, both as a businessman and as a lover. 

Some have compared Cantinflas' style to that of Charlie Chaplin, except that he wasn't just a physical performer, known just as much for his turns of phrase and comic interjections (something that will be lost in translation for those who need subtitles) as he is for his physical buffoonery.  And he was respected for making fun of the wealthy and powerful, even though they ranked among his biggest fans.  Chaplin himself praised the Mexican star highly (reportedly calling him the greatest comedian alive), something that is showcased in this film on several occasions, mostly because Del Amo spends an inordinate amount of time name dropping just about every Hollywood and Mexican celebrity of the time that even tangentially comes within the radar's scope of Cantiflas' circle of existence.

Certainly, a biopic of one of Latin America's most popular and revered performers is worthy of a motion picture release.  However, this film by director and co-scripter Sebastian Del Amo makes a huge narrative decision that sags the story somewhat by making half of the film about Around the World in 80 Days' producer Mike Todd (played by American actor Michael Imperioli, Oldboy) and his attempts to court big-name stars to make his ambitious movie.  Perhaps the point is to put Cantinflas' status among film stars up there with the likes of Frank Sinatra and many other big-name celebs that were courted to participate in the film. 

Or perhaps it was to broaden the scope to American and other English-speaking countries in order to make the film much more marketable by featuring English-language scenes revolving around old Hollywood icons.  Either way, it makes Cantinflas' involvement in the movie feel like it was the biggest event in the world of both Cantinflas and also Hollywood to have him in the film, when it wasn't.  And it also takes Jaenada off the screen far too long -- a curious thing for a biopic to keep its main subject out of his own story about a third of the film's run time.

Cantinflas is also coated with a romanticized and sentimentalized notion of its subject so thick that the man who was Mario Moreno almost gets lost in the shadow of his larger-than-life reputation.  Del Amo directs this film with the heaviest of hands. When Moreno is sad, it begins to pour rain.  When Moreno kisses his wife (Salas, Gueros), fireworks erupt in the background.  Scenes of Moreno's marriage sometimes play out with the subtlety of a telenovela, especially in the couples' inability to have children.  When spats arise or someone is distraught, we know because the room they were in is left in complete disarray.  It doesn't help that the costumes and sets look like costumes and sets, and the cinematography is soft and bright like a TV production.

Unfortunately, for a film about one of the funniest comedians of his heyday, Cantinflas isn't particularly funny, even when it is showcasing the entertainer making audiences double over in laughter.  Jaenada's performance does captivate, but not enough to pull out a good film out of its clichéd look at show business and over-embellished story arcs.  At least it piques the interest enough to dig out Around the World in 80 Days and seek out more of the comedic actor's original work.

-- The end credits features an extended scene of Jaenada as Cantinflas performing a comic dance with a professional female dancer.

Qwipster's rating:

©2014 Vince Leo