I don’t know how many times I have to state this, so this time I’ll make it simple. For anyone reading this who works in development at one of the studios or is involved in acquisitions at one of the arthouse distributors, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, LISTEN TO ME! If you want to find the next hot-s**t foreign filmmaker, FOR THE FOURTH F**KIN’ TIME, IT’S ALEX DE LA IGLESIA! I really don’t know how to make it any clearer.
A cinema god in his homeland of Spain, U.S. distribution continues to elude him except for the limited release of “Day of the Beast”. Thanks to the Recent Spanish Cinema Series 2000 at the American Cinematheque, an audience was able to view de la Iglesia’s newest film from last year, “Muertos de Risa”, or “Dying of Laughter”.
Beginning near the end, we meet the famed comedy team Nino (Santiago Segura) and Bruno (El Gran Wyoming) as they race to the studio for their TV reunion special. Bearing nothing but pure hatred for each other, it’s apparent that this performance will be their last, leaving manager Julian (de la Iglesia stalwart, Alex Angulo) to recall just what went wrong.
Back in the early ’70’s, Bruno is a sometime comic and part-time bartender at a club where Nino sometimes sings. When a bunch of drunken soldiers burn the place down, the pair set off together to Madrid to test their fate as a comedy team. Hooking up with talent manager/con artist Julian, the duo get their first gig before a drunken crowd in the middle of a burlesque show. When Nino develops stage fright and can’t remember any jokes, Bruno slaps him out of frustration. The crowd finds this hilarious. With the next slap, our heroes have found both the path to fame and fortune and the road to annihilation.
Each man discovers the other has the traits he needs to succeed. Resentment sets in, which leads to jealousy, then practical jokes and public humiliation. As they become more successful, they only hate each other more. Living in identical, adjoining houses, all they can think about is what the other possesses that they lack, until any joy is replaced by an all-consuming desire to torment each other. It doesn’t end well.
There’s much more here than just a couple of self-destructive stooges. De la Iglesia goes at it like a Spanish Brian de Palma shooting a Farrelly brothers script. Context is important as Nino and Bruno sport bad clothes and bad hairstyles to match the time periods that coincide with the end of the Franco era and the attempted military coup after his death. The historical context accentuates the action as the irrational hatred overrides any consideration for the trouble the pair inflicts upon each other. When the army overruns the television station, neither can be distracted from beating the hell out of each other.
The best thing about the movie is the relationship between Nino and Bruno. I have no idea what kind of Spanish comedy teams the filmmakers drew upon, but you can draw connections to American acts like Abbott and Costello and more specifically, Martin and Lewis. When two people repeatedly fail to make it on their own but strike it rich through an accidental pairing or comedy bit, resentment comes easy when they aren’t allowed to do anything else. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were damn lucky to maintain equal success after their split. By all accounts, if they had stuck together, Dean would have killed Jerry. As this movie demonstrates, the public tends to love the dumber half of a team a little more and nobody appreciates a ‘straight man’. Then again, it can’t be fun to be the guy who gets slapped in the face a dozen times over the course of the act.
Both Nino and Bruno search for new partners, but no one else has the same chemistry. The pain isn’t there. Comedy teams, rock bands, and movie casts are often slaves to this concept. Unfortunately, the easiest way to get it is for the people involved to hate each other. It’s a bond that keeps you on your toes. Have you ever seen a real-life married couple in a romantic pairing in a movie? They usually suck because they’re too comfortable with each other. Get a pair of actors that hate each other’s guts and there’s usually fire on screen. Fleetwood Mac was the biggest band in the world when its members were constantly tormenting each other. Other acts as diverse as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Clash, Guns n’ Roses, and TLC have or continue to feed off of their intra-band resentments.
Hollywood loves to show us how love can overcome anything, including reason. Alex de la Iglesia is more interested in how hatred and various forms of dementia can do it. In the end, isn’t that much more entertaining?