The Three Lust-kateers

Any idiot can write a boffo opening to a movie. The hard part is sustaining the suspense, comedy, or action for 90 minutes and then wrapping it all up neatly into a satisfying conclusion. That is why so many movies start with a bang and end with a whimper. It's the rare film whose final five minutes live up to the promise of its first five.

Manuel G centsmez Pereira's You Men Are All the Same (Todos los hombres sois iguales) is a pretty decent movie. It's very funny at times, and G centsmez Pereira demonstrates a real flair for tongue-in-cheek satire. He has great fun lampooning the macho fantasy world of the mythical male archetype. But his movie suffers from disappointing-ending syndrome. After blasting off with a clever beginning, sailing along fairly smoothly on the wings of some droll observational comedy, and signaling its approach for what should be a neat landing, the damn thing crashes a few feet in front of the runway.

An airline flight from Madrid to Rome encounters some unexpected disruptions in midair. Passengers shriek as their plane dips suddenly, veers from side to side, and shakes violently. Outside the weather is clear, not a trace of turbulence. The problem is in the cockpit, where a crazy-eyed pilot named Joaquin grips the controls tightly, beads of sweat forming on his frowning face. With the plane losing altitude rapidly, Joaquin bolts from his seat and accosts a couple cuddling in first class -- Ester, his estranged wife, and Cesar, his best friend and the lawyer who is handling his divorce.

"If you don't change the settlement, I'll let the plane crash," Joaquin announces loudly enough for all to hear.

Ester, accustomed to her husband's bullying and macho bravado, calls his bluff. To the abject horror of Cesar and the other 200 or so passengers on the aircraft, she dares Joaquin to kill them all with the ultimate insult to the Spanish male: "You haven't got the cojones!"

Passengers Manolo, a pudgy sports broadcaster, and Juan Luis, a trim architect, leap to their feet and attempt to convince the fuming airman that no woman is worth killing himself over. Sure they have an ulterior motive -- self-preservation -- but they clearly have a few bones to pick with the opposite sex once they start listing the perceived defects and vices of women. To buttress their cases, Manolo and Juan Luis relay the terrible abuses they have suffered at the hands of their respective ex's. Both men were philanderers whose wives caught them in the act and dumped them, cutting them off from homes and children. Joaquin is, naturally, appalled by the women's behavior. The strategy works; the pilot realizes he isn't alone in his torment and returns to the cockpit.

Months later the three have become fast friends and swinging bachelor roommates who share a fashionable apartment and a pact to protect each other from intimacy and commitment to women. There is only one house rule: No woman is allowed to spend more than one night. For a while they live a carefree, adolescent fantasy existence as debauchers, libertines, and avengers of the tamed male. They smoke cigars, watch football, seduce teenagers and married women, and generally comport themselves as boorishly as possible.

Enter Yoli, a beautiful but independent and totally mercenary cleaning lady who accepts the job out of financial necessity but refuses to take any guff in the bargain. The three committed bachelors become infatuated with their new maid; she steals their hearts almost as effortlessly as she pilfers their belongings. The trio quickly formulates rule number two -- hands off the cleaning lady -- which none of them has any intention of obeying. Their idyll is about to come to an end.

As he did with 1991's Hot Sauce (Salsa rosa) and 1992's Why Do They Call It Love When They Really Mean Sex? (¨Por que lo llaman amor cuando quieren decir sexo?), the latter packing them in when it played here last summer, director Pereira has fashioned a dark screwball comedy out of the battlefield of love and relationships. His glee is almost palpable as he leads his three bitter, sexist protagonists down the path toward enlightenment, but not necessarily salvation.

The film is at its best poking fun at the attitudes of a generation of thoroughly confused males who secretly suspect that "the old way" was better and that men have lost too much ground in the war between the sexes. Joaquin, Manolo, and Juan Luis bitch about their wives' cruelty even as they cheat on them, and complain loudly about losing their children after years of shirking the responsibilities of parenthood. The hapless trio at You Men Are All the Same's center thinks they are the good guys; Pereira makes sure we walk away with a dissenting view.

The problem is that after all three get their richly deserved comeuppances and learn their life lessons, Pereira sends them off to surprising and unsatisfying fates that leave lots of loose ends and a bad taste in viewers' mouths. Perhaps it was that nettlesome Spanish filmmakers' instinct (Almod centsvar is afflicted with it as well) to appear anarchic at all costs, as if anarchy and boredom were mutually exclusive. No one likes predictability, but when an ending makes sense, sometimes it just makes sense to go with it. And this film was building toward an ending that would have made sense without being pat: The three blind mice, after having their vision restored by the superwoman housekeeper, should have reconciled with their families. (If Pereira wanted to keep things dark, he could have let the trio appear to have happily-ever-after within their reach only to revert to their old ways.) Instead they disperse in three different directions that, for the first time, make you feel sorry for them. It's a conclusion that begs more questions than it answers.


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