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Soccer journeys in Rudo y Cursi

Making it

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Gael García Bernal as Tato/Cursi and Diego Luna as Beto/Rudo - PHOTO BY IVONNE VENEGAS/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Rudo y Cursi opens Friday in select theaters

Making what will likely be a brief appearance on area screens, Rudo y Cursi is a curiosity that, although not entirely successful, is quirky and smart enough to seek out. First off, the stars of the film are Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, the same pair that shot to stardom eight years ago in Y tu mamá también, while the director of that film, Alfonso Cuarón, went on to a Harry Potter movie and Children of Men. Cuarón also became associated with two other talented Mexican filmmakers, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). Known as the Three Amigos in Hollywood, they have formed a production company called Cha Cha Cha. Rudo y Cursi is their first effort together, and, in keeping with the tightness of their creative circle, the director and screenwriter is Carlos Cuarón, the younger brother of Alfonso.

The resulting story is uneven in its tone and may seem off-putting: It's not realistic enough—and the strokes are too broad—for it to be convincing as drama, but in its weary fatalism and pessimistic view of human nature and Mexican society, it's hardly the stuff of comedy. The best way to understand Rudo y Cursi is to think of it as a Candide-style picaresque in its depiction of the wild journey of two young brothers who escape the toils of a Jalisco banana plantation to find something like fame and fortune in Mexico City.

Luna is Beto (later to be called Rudo—"tough"), a passionate soccer goalkeeper on his local village team, while García Bernal is his brother Tato (later, Cursi, which means "corny"), who has marvelous ball skills but really wants to be a pop singer. A semiscrupulous soccer scout passing through their jungle hamlet (Argentine comic performer Guillermo Francella) takes notice of them, but is only able to take one to the big city. Although the bitter misunderstanding that follows seems to favor one brother, both of them get a chance at making it in fútbol.

The film charts their separate careers—Cursi finds success with a first-division team but would rather be performing Cheap Trick covers in Spanish and romancing Maya, a popular television personality (pitilessly played by Jessica Mas), while Rudo toils in the hardscrabble second soccer division, with his wife and child now living with him in a grimy apartment. Along the way, the brothers confront the pitfalls of sudden celebrity: wild spending, drugs, gambling, avaricious women, demanding fans.

Cuarón's canvas of Mexican society is an unflattering one: Corruption is everywhere, from the way soccer coaches decide who to put on the roster to the way Rudo and Cursi's family fortunes improve with an advantageous marriage to a drug lord. It's a bleak view of Mexican life, and it comes with few of the arty trappings of, say, Amores Perros, the film that brought its star, García Bernal, and its director, González Iñárritu, to international notice. In contrast to the technical acuity that characterizes the films made by Iñárritu and his fellow producers, Rudo y Cursi has an artless feel—from which it largely benefits. The soccer playing (particularly García Bernal's) isn't very convincing, and the characters are as flat and broad as a soccer pitch. Still, the film feels relevant and truthful. Rudo y Cursi may be unsatisfying in the way that misanthropic movies are, but it nonetheless leaves an impression: You feel that you've learned something.

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