To begin let us discuss puking. You know, upchucking, barfing, yacking, Technicolor yawning. Always unpleasant -- and yet usually a great relief to a queasy gut -- a nice vomit can be provoked by just about anything, but a few catalysts seem to work every time. Agents of proven reliability have included spiritual channelers, Michael McDonald, and the Reagan administration, but also effective is that foul emetic known as "love." Not familial love, not mature romantic love, and certainly not jungle love, but rather sickie-sweet love, cutesy love, wuvvy-duvvy love. The harsh stuff. The chunk summoner.
We should all thank Amy Irving for her latest movie, Bossa Nova, a blithe Brazilian romp directed by her husband, Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), because there's not a gastronomical system walking around today that won't benefit from its incredible cleansing power. Here we have the product of complacent holiday-making and midlife backpedaling, an aspartame-coated trance dance through sunny frames as crisp and colorful as they are vacuous. While it percolates a cute global frivolity not much seen since Robert Altman's Prêt à Porter a few years ago, it's also as much fun as chewing coffee grounds, and prompts a similar nausea. Devoid of depth or much narrative sense, its approach to matters of the heart makes Blame It on Rio feel like Wuthering Heights.
Like Rio, this extended Bacardi commercial romances that great city on the water, wooing us with gorgeous, postcard-worthy shots of the beaches, the fútbol matches, the mountains, and every lush sunset the gifted cinematographer Pascal Rabaud can cram in. Even jet planes seem cuddly here. Except for a teeny-tiny sports riot near the end, this movie is selling a sanitized Brazil, a fantasy place out of travel guides, where two steps in any direction will take you from an Art Deco building to a pristine beach. There is no grit, there are no frenzied costermongers peddling produce in overcrowded markets, no belligerent cab drivers, not even any sensuous dancing. Instead we get creatures that are half human, half stuffed toy, teetering adorably through muddled relationships as if this were The Ewoks' Romantic Adventure.
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The head Ewok in this case is Irving, who plays the widow Mary Ann Simpson, a former flight attendant who now teaches locals to speak English. Via her language school, In English, Please, she instructs Nadine (Drica Moraes), a plain Jane who's in love with an enigmatic hunk of a Soho artist named Gary, whom she met over the Internet. "Americans use the word love very casually," Mary Ann warns her pupil. "We say I love you like you say goodbye." Undaunted Nadine decides to meet her cyber-beau, arranging transit through Tania (Debora Bloch), who has shacked up with tai chi instructor Wan Kim-lau (Kazuo Matsui) after dumping her passionate lawyer husband, Pedro Paulo (Antonio Fagundes), who in turn falls in love with his teacher, Mary Ann.
That tidy circle is filled in with a whole mess of other happenstances, including Pedro Paulo's saucy intern Sharon (Giovanna Antonelli), who flirts with both the lawyer's puppy-eyed half-brother Roberto (Pedro Cardoso) as well as fútbol star Acacio (Alexandre Borges), who also shares the obligation of flirting with Mary Ann. Whee. An effervescent scam-o-rama it is, but Pillow Talk it isn't, and the reason is this: In an attempt to update the genre of wispy Sixties romantic comedy, the writers have kept the lobotomized silliness (and composer Eumir Deodato simply has dumped improbable breakbeats into the score), but rather than adding an adult subtext, they've merely added adult language. Thus sadly one of the movie's best scenes is when Mary Ann and Acácio hurl dirty English epithets at each other until the soccer player gets so turned on he can't help but kiss her. Apart from a therapeutic fantasy he later concocts to bamboozle the cuckolded Pedro Paulo (think of it as Bury My Lust at Wounded Knee), that's as deep as the passion runs in Bossa Nova.
The movie also projects a strange giddiness about matters that would doom most films to a mass audience exodus to the ticket counter for refunds. While the photography is undeniably lovely and the lilting Brazilian pop (mostly courtesy of Tom Jobim, to whom -- along with François Truffaut -- the project is dedicated) may seduce a few frazzled souls with its touristy ambiance, Bossa Nova can be as rude and crude as any teen sex farce. For example once Tania has ditched her husband for her exotic boyfriend, she discovers, much to her horror, that Chinese people move their bowels! Thus the same humor that simultaneously illuminated and sunk the woefully overlooked The Road to Wellville (which, come to think of it, also featured funnier flirting) is employed here as a smirk-inducer. Obviously it doesn't work.
Everybody is game to play, and it seems as though the cast had a nice time, adjusting dialects, learning a little Portuguese here, a little English there, but the come-ons and gropings all misfire miserably. Do legal interns really enjoy being stroked without consent? Does a wounded Stephen Tobolowsky make an acceptable surrogate stud? Does everybody in Rio live every second of their lives in precise synchronicity with their romantic foils? Yes in all cases, according to Barreto, and Irving lends her perky insouciance to the case. Nonetheless Bossa Nova sits before us like an exquisite platter of wax fruit, colorful, flavorless, and, if you eat it, very likely to come back up again.
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