Simple pleasure

Mouth to Mouth does more than phone it in

Welcome to one of the slowest film weekends of the year, second only to the first week in January, when all the classy holiday releases are clogging up the available screens. This is usually when distributors put out their saddest mistakes, looking for a few quick bucks on the way to the video shelves.

Miramax has been holding on to the Spanish comedy Mouth to Mouth (aka Boca a Boca) for better than a year now, which is an additional bad omen. Yet even though this romp from director-co-writer Manuel Gomez Pereira may not be an easy sell, surely it's amusing enough to deserve a slightly more dignified release.

The plot is like a parody of one of those made-for-cable thrillers with titles such as Animal Instinct or Dangerous Passion. Javier Bardem (Jamon Jamon, High Heels) plays Victor Ventura, a sad-sack actor who can't seem to get a break. Struggling to survive in Madrid, where all the Spanish film action is centered, he's reduced to delivering pizzas in between auditions. Just when he's about to throw in the towel and move back to his hometown of Cartagena, his agent tells him that a casting agent is coming to town in three weeks to consider him for a lead in a big American production. Unfortunately, Victor is out of work, homeless, and in debt.

Desperate to stay in town till his tryout, he takes a job at a telephone-sex operation, spinning gay fantasies for lonely men. His steadiest customer is Bill (Josep Maria Flotats), a closeted plastic surgeon trapped in a sham marriage. But, as often happens, the phone-sex job takes its toll on his personal life: When he gets a call from the sultry-sounding Amanda (Aitana Sanchez-Gijón), he falls for her, not realizing that he's about to become enmeshed in a complicated blackmail-murder scheme.

Like most recent Spanish films to reach these shores, Mouth to Mouth shows the influence of that country's most notable cinematic export, Pedro Almodovar. It's not just the concern with gender confusion and sexual geometry, but also the genre-hopping that Almodovar pioneered in Law of Desire.

Still, Pereira is far more conventional than Almodovar or the other best-known Spanish directors, Bigas Luna and Alex de la Iglesias, all of whom have exploited Bardem's simmering sensuality. Most of Mouth to Mouth fits into a traditional sex farce template, with mistaken identities and arbitrarily crossing paths. It's a Hollywoodized version of Almodovar--a hybridization that the film cheerfully and self-referentially admits.

The subplot about the audition includes a savage caricature of arrogant American filmmakers--a pretentious boor (Sam Makenzie) with the manner of a spoiled eight-year-old. (Despite himself, Pereira seems to be in love with Hollywood. In a strange kind of homage, having already set up a reference to Singin' in the Rain, he introduces a fictional actress named "Debra Reynolds," who bears no relationship to the original.) The hero has no compunction about kissing up to this jerk, nor does he change much in the course of the story. Even in its most serious moments, Mouth to Mouth seems to have been deliberately stripped of any thematic subtext; it's designed as a sleek pleasure machine, a modest goal it mostly achieves.

Bardem, who sometimes looks like a hunky version of Robert Downey, Jr., manages to make Victor klutzy and studly all at once. A ludicrously inept audition scene early in the film suggests that we aren't supposed to think much of Victor's talent; it's strictly his insecurity and earnestness that make us root for him to succeed.

Pereira, whose previous All Men Are the Same also deserved an airing in the U.S., is a clever enough craftsman to integrate a few reasonably steamy scenes without sinking into exploitation. His comic timing within scenes is not always inspired, but Mouth to Mouth provides enough effective plot surprises to hold our attention, despite its absolute lack of substance.

Mouth to Mouth (Boca a Boca).
Directed by Manuel Gomez Pereira. Screenplay by Pereira, Joaquin Oristrell, Juan Luis Iborra, and Naomi Wise. Starring Javier Bardem, Aitana Sanchez-Gijón, Josep Maria Flotats, Maria Barranco, and Myria Mezieres. Opens Friday.

 
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