“Nicotina” is an uncertain, but also unboring, neo-noir comedy that has more than its share of gimmicks. Its characters smoke quite a bit, and they talk about the demon weed with roots in Winston-Salem more than Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega discussed burgers. Then there’s the conceit — more clear in the promotional materials than in the actual movie — that it takes place in “real time.” And what’s with those possibly existential themes of death and destiny that get brought up a few times? Not much, as far as I can see.
The first of several lead characters in “Nicotina” is Lolo (Diego Luna), a shy, but criminally inclined computer geek smitten with his classical musician neighbor (Marta Beláustegui). In the manner of all good cinematic nerds, poor Lolo is unable to see that the older woman is utterly uninterested and busily involved with other men more helpful to her career. He is also unaware that planting cameras and listening devices in her apartment won’t win her love. A series of increasingly mortifying goofs leads him to misplace a crucial CD, with possibly fatal consequences for two of his more dangerous cohorts — El Nene, a chain-smoking, glibly fatalistic young tough (Lucas Crespi) and his stridently anti-tobacco mentor in crime (Jesús Ochoa).
When the misplaced disc leads to a deadly misunderstanding with an obese Russian gangster (Norman Sotolongo), said gangster ends up dying in the barber shop belonging to a financially struggling barber (Rafael Inclán) and his Lady MacBeth of a manicurist wife (Rosa María Bianchi) – but not before dropping a few hints that he may have swallowed a boat load of diamonds. It appears that all the couple needs to do end their financial struggling is carve up the dead crook’s gastro-intestinal track, but do the hapless barber and his money-grubbing lady have the stomach, so to speak? And what to do with that pesky police officer who drops by for a haircut?
Meanwhile, a gunshot El Nene heads to a drug store owned by an unpleasant lout (Daniel Giménez Cacho ), made even more so by his attempts at quitting smoking. The young man demands help from the owner’s pretty, long-suffering wife (Carmen Madrid). She can’t help but notice the young gangster’s attraction to her.
Written by Martin Salinas and directed by Hugo Rodriguez, “Nicotina” may not amount to much, but it’s not a total loss either. Many of the jokes actually work and the acting is reasonably strong. One surprising exception, however, is Diego Luna in the closest thing the film has to a starring role. The babyfaced Luna gave strong performances in last year’s outstanding Y Tu Mamá También and this year’s lousy Open Range. However, his performance here seems to be mostly a collection of puppy-dog tricks designed to gain audience affection.
In any case, it seems likely that how much you enjoy “Nicotina” will be tied to how much you enjoyed the Guy Ritchie pictures it strongly resembles. Those who thought Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch were the cats p.j.’s will likely enjoy “Nicotina.” The rest of us are likely to be vaguely irritated.