Review: CANTINFLAS, A Romanticized Biopic

Contributor; Mexico City, Mexico (@EricOrtizG)
Review: CANTINFLAS, A Romanticized Biopic

Actor Óscar Jaenada might be Spanish but he was the perfect choice to play the role of Mario Moreno, also known as "Cantinflas," one of Mexico's most beloved and legendary comedians. In Sebastián del Amo's Cantinflas, Jaenada delivers a performance that is pure gold; though the film is far from being a home run in every single aspect.

The biopic tackles several facets of Moreno and is structured as two main storylines. We follow rookie producer Mike Todd (played by The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli) in his attempt to bring to life the so-called biggest, most spectacular film ever (that would be 1956's Around the World in Eighty Days); and on the other hand, we have the humble origins of Moreno and the eventual creation and success of his Cantinflas character.

Cantinflas jumps from the fifties to the past, and vice versa, throughout. What's more interesting of this structure is arguably that we get to see Jaenada showcasing his versatility; he can be the young Cantinflas and seconds later, you are seeing him as the much more mature and serious Moreno.

In other ways, this is a conventional biopic, as each plot follows the way to success of their respective character (Moreno and Todd). For instance, the story that kicks off in the 1930's -- with a young Moreno trying to find his vocation and doing boxing, bullfighting, stand up comedy, and ultimately theater -- has the traditional dose of friendship, romance, fame, and of course struggle appearing in the protagonist's life, before arriving to the 1950's.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and proof of that is the solid first part, with the introduction of the man that gave Moreno the opportunity to go to a Mexico City carpa to prove his comedy skills (Estanislao Shilinsky, played by Luis Gerardo Méndez), and their transition from those carpas to the elite theater in Mexico City. Moreno had a special ability to improvise, and to play with the language to a point that what he was speaking was no longer Spanish but rather Mexican (as he explains to his future Russian wife Valentina Ivanova). However, as Moreno finds love and Cantinflas conquers the theaters, the film begins to rush, becoming more a quick resume that focuses on the bigger picture and not in any singular event (aside of the making of said Hollywood film, certainly).

This is particularly notorious -- and baffling -- during Cantinflas' change from theater to cinema. Still, the film-related bits are usually very attractive, and perhaps I just wanted to see more of this. The conflict between Moreno and Juan Bustillo Oro, the director of his most important Mexican picture (Ahí Está el Detalle); his partnership with renowned cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; and in general how Cantinflas became an independent force, as his improvisational skills were bigger than any movie script.

Instead of stopping here, Cantinflas focuses on the post-success part of Moreno's life. His facet as an advocate of the actors' rights in Mexico is, as well, hardly explored in a more profound manner. At times, the film plays as a parade of cameos, as I suppose del Amo was trying to make a reference to Around the World in Eighty Days. While some cameos are relevant to the actual narrative (i.e. Charles Chaplin), others are nothing but disposable material (I'm looking at you, Joaquín Cosío as El Indio Fernández).

Cantinflas also exposes the artist's obscure side, how stardom affected his personal relationships and -- most interestingly -- how Moreno began to get tired of the Cantinflas character. But make no mistake, this is very cartoonish and, ultimately, a feel-good biopic.

It is also a very, very romanticized version, which gets silly sometimes. Take the whole thing with Chaplin; sure, it is reported that Charlie once expressed his admiration for Cantinflas, but was he really the key factor in Moreno's final decision to join Todd and Around the World in Eighty Days? I'm not sure about that. So beware, if you want the most realistic take on Cantinflas' life, this won't be fully your cup of tea.

Cantinflas tries to compress 20+ years into 100 minutes, and while director del Amo covered a much bigger period in less running time with his previous biopic (The Fantastic World of Juan Orol), now the work feels fragmented. But it also leaves its intentions very clear. More than creating a stylish piece, or playing with the essence of Cantinflas' own cinema, this time del Amo simply wanted to expose the importance of this Mexican Golden Globe winner star to a new audience and -- thanks to Jaenada -- is an overall entertaining ride and a crowd-pleaser; just not the great, essential biopic of the year for Mexican cinema.

Cantinflas opens in Mexico on Thursday, September 18.

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BiopicCantinflasMario MorenoMexican CinemaOscar JaenadaSebastian del Amo

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