What's Sex Got to Do With It?

Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones. And sometimes they're so simple that you wonder why no one thought of them before.

For example: Miami has been extremely receptive to quality Spanish-language cinema over the past few years. This should come as no surprise; it's no secret that many Miamians speak Spanish. A pentup demand exists for good movies produced in that tongue.

Mexico's Like Water for Chocolate was a huge hit, both as a first- and second-run feature. Spanish director Pedro Almod centsvar's films have been surfing a wave of popularity since the early Eighties, cresting with 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almod centsvar's subsequent offerings haven't fared as well with either audiences or critics, but they haven't wiped out either. Bigas Luna's bawdy Jam centsn Jam centsn broke attendance records at the Alliance Cinema in Miami Beach, where it premiered last winter. Fernando Trueba's Belle epoque made its U.S. debut as the opening feature at the 1994 Miami Film Festival (Almod centsvar's Kika closed the fest), then went on to garner the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and to enjoy an extended run in area theaters.

At the same time, film production in Spain, while still puny by Hollywood standards both in terms of budgets and number of feature films made, has been enjoying something of an artistic renaissance. Almod centsvar is still the best-known Spanish director in the U.S., but Trueba, Luna, and Vicente Aranda (Lovers) have all made inroads. Since 1992, Spanish producers who have made comedies have been laughing all the way to the bank in their own country, so there is no shortage of product on the market.

You'd think someone would have heard the siren call of jingling cash registers sooner and made a concerted effort to bring more of these top Spanish films to South Florida. Enter Morris Projects, the Sarasota-based outfit responsible for booking many of the Alliance's offerings, as well as for booking fifteen other movie theaters throughout the South. Morris has entered into an agreement with Madrid-based distributor Sogepaq to exhibit a series of top Spanish films at the Alliance and the Astor Art Cinema in Coral Gables. It seems strange that it would take a Sarasota company to bring more Spanish cinema to Miami, pero bueno.

This Friday, Morris-Sogepaq kick things off at the Astor with the U.S. premiere of ¨Por que lo llaman amor cuando quieren decir sexo? (Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex?), a racy farce that stars actors already somewhat familiar to Miami audiences (Kika's Ver centsnica Forque and Belle epoque's Jorge Sanz). Opening with a comedy is a smart move; the Spanish films that have done the best here have blended large measures of both humor and sex, including Women on the Verge, Jam centsn, Water for Chocolate. (Much more open to second-guessing is the decision to follow Why Do They Call It Love... with a slate that runs heavily toward thrillers and melodramas.)

Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex? is another of those madcap comedies we've come to expect from Spain in the wake of Women on the Verge. Ver centsnica Forque plays a live sex-peepshow actress whose regular on-stage stud falls ill with the mumps. Jorge Sanz, the black sheep son of a wealthy psychiatrist, fills in because he needs the money to make good on some serious gambling debts. These two struggle to maintain a semblance of "professionalism" by distancing the acts they perform for money from the way they feel about each other, but they don't quite pull it off. The early scenes introducing Forque's and Sanz's characters are surprisingly explicit and not all that humorous. But when his parents turn up unexpectedly the fun begins. An elaborate charade is constructed to prevent them from finding out the truth about their wayward son, and a series of progressively deepening (and more hilarious) complications ensues.

This is only director Manuel G centsmez Pereira's second film, and the inexperience occasionally shows. He's much better with the comic elements of the film than he is with the dramatic scenes, which tend toward the overwrought. And the juxtaposition of the two is often jarring, such as when the bleak realities of the porno-peepshow world buck up against the overall buoyant tone of the picture. Dead spots and moments when you're not sure whether a scene is meant to be taken seriously or tongue-in-cheek may be partly due to the translation into English; subtleties are invariably lost in the subtitles. Compounding Pereira's problems is a lack of chemistry between the principals. Sanz is considerably less likable here than he was in Belle epoque; Forque is essentially the same unsinkable optimist she played in Kika. In fact, Forque's characters are so much alike you can almost imagine the Almod centsvar film, which ended with Forque driving off to an uncertain future with a total stranger, as a prequel to Why Do They Call It Love.

Despite its flaws, however, Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex? is a winner. Pereira's first flick, Salsa Rosa, was one of Spain's top grossers in 1992, and this film followed in its financial footsteps. Pereira seems to have learned a thing or two from Almod centsvar, with his movies incorporating many of his more experienced colleague's trademarks. Sets and characters are often garish and colorful. Plot zings along at a clip that prevents dwelling on the elements that don't work. Irreverence and sexual anarchy dominate. Enough wacky setups pay off to satisfy the demand for off-kilter comedy. Forque (who stars in both Pereira pix) is, as always, a lovable ditz. And Why Do They Call It Love's closing peepshow love scene is a homage to -- and a twisted, inspired sendup of -- traditional boy-meets-girl happy-ending schmaltz.

Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex? never really answers the titular question, but that's of little consequence. There's no reason to believe it won't appeal to fans of Belle epoque and Jam centsn Jam centsn, just as it did in Spain. All in all it's a fine opener: fresh and funny, exposing audiences to a talented new filmmaker. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones.

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