Benicio Del Toro has the basset hound look of a beast you can trust — or, at least, he'll happily admit when he's lying. He's the right man for a rotten world, with heavy-lidded, handsome eyes made for giving any tough spot an appraising squint. Recently, he's played a string of scoundrels: cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in Escobar: Paradise Lost ; a louche lawyer in Inherent Vice; and drug-trade heavies in Savages and Sicario, where Del Toro closed out the film with a dinner scene that was so good, people forgot that everything before was a snooze.
In Fernando León de Aranoa's cynical comedy A Perfect Day, Del Toro is on the good side for once as a foreign-aid worker stationed in the Balkans in 1995. The joke is, his good intentions don't matter. Like the Yugoslav wars as a whole — then taking a brief lull for the hammering out of a peace accord that would eventually be broken as the fighting shifted to Kosovo — Del Toro's Mambrú believes his battle is almost finished. In one week, he'll be home with his girlfriend, the script's disembodied representation of domesticity, who calls the U.N. hotline to ask what color sheets she should buy.
A Perfect Day is a wry salute to the world's hard-drinking, eye-rolling aid workers, men and women whose high ideals get crushed by global bureaucracy and local recalcitrance. (Former Doctors Without Borders president Paula Farias wrote the original novel.) The day's challenge sounds simple. Mambrú and his partners B (Tim Robbins) and Sophie (Mélanie Thierry) — he's an adrenaline junkie, she's a utopian naif — must get a corpse out of a town's only well. Alas, in scene one, their rope breaks.
From there, the script takes more perilous twists than the Balkans' mountain roads as the threesome and their translator, Damir (Fedja Stukan), pick up passengers Nikola (Eldar Residovic), a village boy, and Katya (Olga Kurylenko), a U.N. evaluator who also happens to be Mambrú's jilted fling, all only to crash into one obstacle after another. Each is near-Chekhovian in its dismal everyday absurdity, like the clerk who denies that his store sells rope when B is holding it in his hand. “He needs it for hangings,” Damir explains, which B interprets as less an excuse than a threat.
None of the Serbs and Bosnians is subtitled, which adds to the disorientation. Instead, we hear a repeated broken English refrain, “This is war,” delivered with a resigned shrug. And so it is — even though, as Katya futilely points out, according to the current truce, it isn't. Yet this is war in its transitional stage, war as it's always looked in times of tense uncertainty and war as it almost always looks now when countries rarely line up phalanxes of men at the front and instead fight small, fruitless battles for the hearts, minds and loyalties of civilians.
De Aranoa leans on a ’90s-college-radio soundtrack to make his film seem at once period-appropriate and hip: Velvet Underground, Marilyn Manson and Marlene Dietrich's “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” He doesn't need the crutch. A Perfect Day is at its strongest when channeling the Balkans' own infamous sense of black comedy, which is more effectively conveyed in the underappreciated, Jesse Eisenberg–starring The Hunting Party and especially in Emir Kusturica's trumpet-blaring tragedy, Underground. Here, Damir beams, the people are known for their “yogurt and sense of humor.” The very town with the poisoned well is famous for a comedian who's been telling the same joke for 30 years. So, too, in its own way, have the Balkans in trying to explain their own bloody history. The joke always kills, Damir says. Now that is war.