If Roberto Bolaño’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius, The Savage Detectives, is ever lensed, casting would be a cinch: no amigo duo could top Gael Garcia Bernal y Diego Luna for sheer dynamism and flock-to-fawn audience draw. Until that fated day, we’re stuck with Carlos Cuarón’s (Alfonso’s younger brother) mediocre if occasionally amusing rags-to-riches-to-rags feature debut, Rudo y Cursi.
Working side by side for the first time since Cuarón the Elder’s sensational Y Tu Mama Tambien, Luna and Bernal star as soccer-loving stepbrothers Beto (alias Rudo) and Tato (Cursi) whose opposing playing styles (Rudo the irascible, roughhousing goalie; Cursi the smooth, “romantic” striker) also reflect their diametric personalities — the title’s “Tough and Corny.” Their hardscrabble, banana-farming lives take a turn towards Mexico City a.k.a. Mecca de Fútbol when narrator/talent scout Baton (jocularly douch-y Guillermo Francella, flanked at all times by buxom models) discovers them competing on their off-day. He, in the first of a series of bottom-line manipulations, dangles only one spot in front of the tantalized “hicks”; the ensuing shootout to decide who goes professional first (and who’s relegated to second banana, so to speak) is signed all over as the front bookend in a schematic story line, which can be summed up with a few choice words: fame; attendant temptation; self-destruction; inadvertent betrayal.
The problem within the traced, parabolic arch isn’t atmosphere or gusto, though: there’s an ample amount engendered by the handheld camera trolling through the dirty-as-shit backwoods and glitzy metropolis, as well as from the all-in performances of the leads. Take the matchless Bernal: his Curious Cursi not only falls for a social-climbing beauty nicknamed “pajamas” (“because everyone wears her to bed”), but he pursues a singing career with more conviction than he ever commits to a soccer ball. Yet there’s an easy-to-see sincerity in Bernal’s misdirected spunk, even when he belts out notes for a Spanish cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” with less tone than a blackout (the best sequence of the film happens to be his hilariously kitschy music video). His and Luna’s oh-those-boys bonhomie buoy the enterprise for a spell, as they bicker and compete like true siblings over every little thing, especially the noble task of building a beach house for their long-suffering mother. But even their vigor can’t overcome the expected outcome, as each character steps into a footprint from characters past, pressing towards its hermano-a-hermano showdown with a determination reminiscent of a player who spies only the endgame.
Perhaps its the intruding narration that’s most bothersome, containing more exasperating aphorisms — samples include “football is fickle” , “the poorest places are where you’ll find a diamond in the rough” — than a poor-house Horace; basically, it’s like a director’s commentary track that unnecessarily materializes the scene’s meaning in the subtitles. While the tragedy-tinged end saves a few points, the film remains middling entertainment. There’s a reason this has been hyped as Luna and Bernal’s reunion first and foremost: their near-paranormal interplay is far and away the freshest element.
Rudo y Cursi premiered last night at Tribeca. It plays again tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. and on 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.