Review: ‘As Luck Would Have It’
Salma Hayek Film Screens At Digital Gym Cinema
Monday, April 1, 2013
This weekend saw the opening of Spanish director's Álex de la Iglesia's new release in the U.S. "La Chispa De La Vida (As Luck Would Have it)" at the grand opening of San Diego's new Digital Gym Cinema. Guest blogger Dillon Scalzo reviews the film.
If half the world were dying, the other half would be there filming it with their iPhones or video cameras, and what’s more, they’d be trying desperately to capture and sell exclusive footage. Is this what Álex de la Iglesia is trying to tell us in his film "La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It)”? It’s certainly a premise presented and investigated by the film.
I’m only loosely familiar with Iglesia from having lived in Spain, where he’s taught in survey courses on Spanish film and everyone, it seems, knows him for the widespread success of his film “El Día de la Bestia (1995)” among both popular and cult audiences in Spain. That film’s a wild ride definitely worth taking before or after his new movie to gain an understanding of his scope as a filmmaker; it blends horror, action, humor, and an indulgence in the socially/conventionally inappropriate—basically a priest uses the Kabbalah to predict the birth of Satan in modern Madrid. He sets out to kill the devil baby, violating any and all vows of priesthood. Check out the trailer! Sorry, no English subtitles but you can get the point (that the film’s supremely entertaining) and you can rent it with the subtitles via Netflix.
This film is completely different, though it has a trace of what’s come to be known as Iglesia’s s reoccurring affinity for uncanny storylines and unconventional uses of humor. In short, the movie’s centered on a single conundrum: Roberto (José Mota) accidentally falls onto a metal pole that goes through his head and lodges in his brain. He remains there, conscious, atop a huge metal grate, and the movie takes place around him, as doctors don’t know how to move him without risking his bleeding to death before surgery.
One can quickly see how the storyline backs itself into a corner; the narrative is limited in its ability to be dynamic and shift directions drastically or unexpectedly.
Of course, there’s more to the story’s context, but not really that much more—mainly that Roberto’s married to the gorgeous Luisa (Selma Hayek), ultimately the heroine and protagonist of the film. Roberto’s a father of two, and works in advertising. His only success was having come up with a Coca-Cola slogan “la chispa de la vida (the spark of life)” when he was 17. (Aside: I think the English translation of the title of the film fails to take into consideration the repetition and context of this phrase throughout the film—nothing about it suggests the word “luck," the film might instead be called “That Little Spark Of Life/The Spark Of Life”) Now gray haired, Roberto can’t find a job in Madrid, is late on his mortgage, has no money for his children’s college fund, and feels like an absolute failure. The film definitely calls upon the reality of Spain’s economic disparity and strikingly high numbers of unemployed people due to the Euro-crisis that has spanned the last five or so years as its social backdrop. In a way Roberto becomes a synecdoche, a symbolic stand in for all of Spain’s failed economy and the unemployed. During his injury, groups of people come and rally behind him holding signs that say, “We are Roberto Gómez”.
Indeed it’s been tough times for everyone in Spain, which becomes a subtle refrain in the film, but for Roberto they’re only getting worse. Another horrible day of job searching in the anonymous multitudes of the unemployed suit and ties in a devastated Spanish economy, prompts him to drive out to the hotel where he and Luisa had their honeymoon, and where he has his implausible accident falling and leaving him on a gigantic metal grate with a pole in his brain and all over every television channel and media outlet.
Roberto, aware that his phenomenon of an injury is taking place on live television and across all channels, believes that it’s his greatest opportunity to commodify and exploit himself and the entire system/industry that has marginalized and devoured him, and left him broke and pitiful. Luisa, has a more humanized morality and ethical code, but is obviously traumatized and in touch with the severity of the accident that may take her husband’s life, is disgusted and cannot bear to see that happen although she know that the money gained would ultimately bring her husband’s happiness and restore his manhood allowing him to feel he has purpose and can provide for his family.
Hayek, though playing an empowered and beautiful while still mostly domestic vixen of a woman, seems to be trying way too hard and over-acting throughout the film. This impression may have been partly due to her character’s opening scenes, which especially struck me as so feigned that I was unable from that moment on to fully engage or entertain her character completely.
Luisa is one of the only characters with any kind of integrity that’s intact. She’s completely out of place in this dehumanized frenzy of media, politicians, and self important people feeding off of the spectacle of her husband’s suffering. She embodies the wife who exhibits true love and moral integrity above all else. Undoubtedly a female heroine, in a way she’s also a romanticized version of marriage and an idealist who plays the ever-constant, unerring wife who’s way too beautiful for her older and aging gray haired, financially unsuccessful husband, yet ever-so content to be doing-so. Her character’s weakness is she doesn’t feel any moments of complication—she doesn’t come off as real. She seems like a representation of hope, faith and constancy, an archetype or an emblem of something rather than a real person that is complex and unpredictable in times of unnerving and unexpected tragedy.
Although it’s great to see her have a commanding female role, and ultimately become the most compelling character of the film, the majority of her scenes, perhaps due in part to the writing, come off as way too contrived. She becomes part of the problem in the film’s acting overall, and the dramatics in its delivery: There’s a melodramatic quality dripping heavily off of the film whenever it’s really attempting to portray emotion and pathos.
In one scene the museum director who helped uncover and restore the entirety of the ruins, runs crying out of the site, in an over-climactic display, against the crowd of swarming, insane journalists who’ve been let in to trample into the ancient site and desecrate the culmination of her life’s work (aside: the media fall down stairs and smash into roman columns; there are lots of shots of the media trampling each other brutally, but it borders on being humorous as it’s slightly gratuitous and overt the top, such is Iglesia). I admit this is a reason her character’s utter despair, but this ostentatious, dramatic exit for her character seems laughable and like a stock sequence for a “hopes and dreams crushed and so runs away” character, who then does not return for the duration of the film save maybe a single shot.
Of course ultimately the emotional content of the film is serious and heavy, yet in the midst of the oddly timed and placed humor, and within the almost farcical nature of events in the story, it’s hard to take things seriously, or feel any sense of imminent danger in a situation that is quite literally life and death.
Yet beware! This is also clearly a conscious choice by Iglesia, who’s strategically mixing tragedy, comedy, farce, and satire, and in turn exposing vices, limited viewpoints, and follies of society at large and thus the audience itself. The ridiculous nature of the story can only be intentional; it shows the insanity of a world that’s capable of turning any human being’s suffering and pain instantly into money and an opportunity for profit.
Although the humor is effective and unexpected at times, other times it’s guilty of being a poorly done trope. For example how many times is it expected to be funny that various characters unintentionally slam their feet too strongly on the grate connected to the pole stuck in Roberto’s brain—it’s a continuous joke throughout the movie and seems like it must have been an absurd experiment of Iglesia’s to see how many times he could handle fitting the same exact joke in the movie by just changing the character who performs the action. Yet humor is a crucial ingredient in this movie’s technique and form as a kind of farcical satire. The odd ambiguity between humor and earnest tragedy makes it a film that grows on you more afterwards, once you have a moment to process the story and think about the ideas and questions that are behind the film’s artifice. It’s a reminder that both comedy (esp. inappropriate & unconventional comedy) and tragedy have an immense and intertwined depth of feeling and that the work well in highlighting each other.
Iglesia asks profound moral and ethical questions about the condition of suffering in our society and its role as a commodity and yet another vehicle in the ruthless and inhumane machine of capitalism. Yet most every character, and no one more so than Roberto himself, is fully reveling in that system. He’s the first to commodify himself and realize the potential he has for being sold as an exclusive interview opportunity to a mass media conglomerate.
Iglesia probes and exposes, in a fittingly sensationalized manner, the instantaneous global digital media world we live in; however, despite the inherent value in communicating that perspective, the movie may not succeed in showing us anything that we don’t already know. Still the movie has guts and takes risks, which must be applauded, and it takes the only potentially interesting way out that it has left itself.
This film asks great questions and makes poignant observations that demand lingering consideration and make the backbone of the film’s content essentially evocative. The catch is that the ideas that form the foundation of the film are delivered in a kitschy manner and couched in a seemingly goofy plot.
Iglesia succeeds in showing us how utterly ridiculous our world is (maybe that’s why his script & story are so ridiculous). We’re willing to sell anything, the higher the stakes the better in terms of the higher the price. This includes human suffering, even our own and our family’s—perhaps that’s the only way to beat capitalism at its own perverted game. The film has its genius behind its overall concept, but it comes off, at times, as strangely half-hearted and vapid in spite of itself. Maybe that’s the genius of its story—none of it seems to be that big of a deal to us being the super-consumers of human suffering through mass media that we’re accustomed to being. Unfortunately, until the very end, it’s one of those movies that (largely via the acting) keeps you reminded and aware at all times that you’re clearly watching movie—but isn’t that the point of a movie about the "society of the spectacle".