In his follow up to The Last Circus, As Luck Would Have It (La Chispa de la Vida), Álex De La Iglesia moves out from under the literal big top and sets his sites on the mass media -- probably as close to a modern circus as you can get, save for maybe the U.S. Republican primaries.
De la Iglesia reigns in his style this time around and delivers a totally watchable takedown of greed and media obsession that certainly delivers a few madly inspired moments. But while he tips his hat knowingly to films like Network and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, the end result is curiously toothless, and far less outrageous, intense and angry than either of those media-satire hallmarks.
Interestingly, the strongest part of the movie is the first twenty minutes, before De La Iglesia unleashes the madness and absurdity for which he's normally praised. Roberto (Jose Mota) is a down and out ad-man who peaked early with a famous tagline for Coca-Cola. He hasn't been able to find work since. His wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) loves him, job or no job, but the shameful weight that unemployment puts on him is palpable, especially after we witness his desperate, cringe-inducing plea for a job early on.
These early scenes play like a darkly-comic, yet surprisingly compassionate portrait of two decent people struggling through bleak times. Hayek and Mota are in top form, and when the rest of the movie works, it's because de la Iglesia establishes so much good-will towards them during these scenes.
Naturally, things go from terrible to worse-than-terrible for Roberto. After his failed-interview, he drives in a blind rage to the hotel where he and Luisa spent their honeymoon, swearing he'll use the last of his money to book rooms for their anniversary even if he can't afford it. But alas, the hotel no longer exists - In its place is a newly unearthed Roman theatre.
Roberto explores the theatre and soon, thanks to a bizarre accident, the one which sparks the media frenzy, he can't leave. In Wilder's Ace in the Hole, the entire world tunes in to watch a man who is hopelessly trapped in a mine. de la Iglesia's "mine" for Roberto is far more insane and absurdly hilarious, and probably the best idea in the entire movie. I wouldn't dream of giving it away here, though I fear that trailers or other reviews may. Suffice to say, Roberto is stuck, in danger of dying, and eventually, the entire world is watching.
It is here, still relatively early, that the film seems to run out of ideas. Roberto hires an agent, hoping to get rich off of the media's fascination with him, while Luisa stands by his side, reminding him to worry about himself and his family and not the potential money. Media moguls argue over rights to his life while corporations try to place their products on camera with him; His kids show up, and one of them is a goth kid with heavy boots, which de la Iglesia milks for a few good jokes.
Unfortunately, besides the inciting incident, it all feels relatively tame. Our fame-obsessed culture is a huge target, but de la Iglesia never really goes deeper than the surface with his satire, nor does he take the visceral madness to the heights required to justify reexamining these themes.
That's not to say that the film is dull - De la Iglesia is too good of a director, and his actors are too talented. And de la Iglesia displays humanity and compassion towards his characters throughout, which was a welcome surprise. Still it's a bit bewildering when a 50's movie like Ace in the Hole feels more angry and affecting than a conscious re-imagining of similar material.
It's ultimately an interesting counterpoint to The Last Circus. That film reveled in unbridled insanity and raw, sometimes disturbing emotions, and while I didn't feel like it entirely worked, I'll certainly remember it much longer than I'll remember this strangely muted cautionary tale about the cost of fame.