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We don't see many Argentine films imported to the U.S.. When one is given a notable distribution it's usually a serious drama with political overtones. The last major title was 2009's The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), a superb murder thriller and the winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The conventional comedy A Boyfriend for my Wife (Un novio para mi mujer) was the top grossing film in Argentina for the previous year. What begins as a romantic farce makes a rather bumpy transition into a more poignant brand of humor. The few shortcomings in the script are countered by lively direction and winning performances from a trio of amusing, charming lead actors. The show is a welcome change from Hollywood comedies overly committed to gross-out jokes and outlandishly vulgar situations. 1
Tenso Polsky (Adrián Suar) owns a store that sells lighting fixtures. Normally a low-key and likeable fellow, he has been driven to distraction by his moody spouse Tana Ferro (Valeria Bertucelli), who mopes around the house, complains about everything and seems intent on starting arguments. Tenso is convinced that Tana hates him, and is so unhappy that he wants to break up. Too timid to simply say he wants out, he instead hires another man to seduce his wife so that she will do the breaking up. The legendary El Cuervo Flores (Gabriel Goity) isn't anyone's physical idea of a gigolo, but he's become so notorious that he's had to live anonymously as the owner of a kiddie amusement park. To get Tana out of the house, Tenso arranges for her to go back to work as a radio personality, airing her grievances about the world on a local show. Of course, when the irresistible Cuervo makes his moves on the perplexed, flattered Tana, nothing turns out as Tenso plans. Latin American reviews describe Tenso's problem as "masculine cowardice".
A Boyfriend for my Wife engages us immediately with its slightly South American spin on familiar comedy situations. Tenso becomes convinced that the argumentative and pessimistic Tana has no use for him. She never dresses and finds fault with everything; she also harps endlessly on her pet peeves, like pushy strangers that ask personal questions. Since this is a romantic farce, the meek Tenso never simply tells Tana that he's unhappy and that they need to work on their relationship -- he listens to locker room advice at the gym and learns about a guy that woman simply cannot resist. In true comedy fashion Tenso must pay his wife's salary at the radio station to get the young manager to hire her. The other radio employees aren't impressed but we can tell that Tana's fast-talking flow of frustration, complaints and general discontent will be a big hit on the airwaves.
The other original idea is making the mysterious, elusive Cuervo (a scoundrel that a thousand women would like to kick to death) not some slick lady-killer, but a rather over-sized bearded fellow with a face that isn't even handsome. Tana is of course caught off guard. Her show is a promising success and the station manager soon insists on paying her normally. She takes more pride in her appearance and is flattered when Cuervo shows up unannounced with invitations for coffee and dinner. Cuervo reports to Tenso that he's making progress and should be able to wrap up his work in a couple of days. 2
Since this is a romantic farce, Tenso naturally has second thoughts, especially when he sees the "new" Tana, who suddenly seems more attractive and full of positive energy. He can't keep himself from tracking her secret meetings with Cuervo, risking ruining everything.
Several more twists follow that are best left to be discovered by the viewer. Although the comedy ideas eventually run thin (Tenso has an emotional argument with a man in a big floppy doggy suit) our affection for the characters grows. The cartoonish couple's problems become more identifiable as A Boyfriend for my Wife's final act slips into a less comedic mode. Adrián Suar's Tenso begins as a wishy-washy passive kind of guy; he retains his essential sweetness even as the change in tone makes his character inconsistent. Valeria Bertuccelli's Tana blooms into a vital, interesting personality one could easily fall in love with, knowing full well that she's also an emotional rollercoaster. The story remains a comedy, in that this couple has already been married for a time and should know each other better than they seem to. Divorce statistics are on the side of screenwriter Pablo Solarz, however.
Director Juan Taratuto demonstrates a sure hand with his visuals, and neatly interjects a series of cutaways to an uncomfortable marriage counseling encounter that seems to show Tana and Tenso incapable of resolving their differences. What distinguishes this Argentine show from so many American domestic comedies is its reliance on simple character behaviors to make us smile. I no longer have patience for committee-written comedies that consider themselves edgy or daring as they toss comedy ideas at us in scattershot fashion -- humiliations, gross-out shock jokes -- for their individual effect. A Boyfriend for my Wife creates funny characters but respects them as well, and that's worth seeking out.
Olive Films' DVD of A Boyfriend for my Wife is a good encoding of a sharp and colorful enhanced widescreen transfer. The cinematography of Pablo Schverdfinger gives us an idea of the modern Buenos Aires minus the tourist-travelogue angle one would see in an American-made show. The people live in a modern apartment and the radio station is a storefront in a shopping center. The outdoor cafés certainly look inviting.
The accurate English subtitles are not removable. The end title sequence features a number of "reformed Cuervo" scenes, showing the lovable Flores accosting his old conquests in search of forgiveness. They're pretty amusing.
There are no other extras, which is a shame. The impressive Ms. Bertuccelli is worth seeking out elsewhere. She's in a 2005 movie called La Antena that's currently available on Netflix.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Boyfriend for my Wife rates:
1. Gee, does vulgarity still exist? Or is it a dead concept?
2. Although the show doesn't really pay off the idea, it's amusing that the Cuervo character is such a lady killer when he doesn't look the part. The joke is of course that men often have no idea at all what really appeals to women. Cuervo reminds me of two characters played by actor Tim Matheson. In John Landis' college comedy Animal House Matheson is hilarious as a frat house punk who lords it over a make-out pad like a budding Frank Sinatra. The fun comes in seeing an 'ordinary' college student already so well versed in the role of a playboy seducer. Let's call the mechanism 'comic contrast'.
Spielberg tried to repeat this comic chemistry in his 1941. Tim Matheson's Air Corps Lothario Captain Loomis Birkhead is an absolutely crazy womanizer, but he isn't anywhere near as funny. Loomis Birkhead is a handsome guy and an officer, so he shouldn't need to go to such extremes to get all the women he wants. The only reason he's such a nut is to provide 1941 with nutty character #106. There's no comic conflict. Now, if Captain Birkhead were exactly the same, except only about 5' 2" tall, then he'd be a riot -- a sawed-off horn-dog who must try harder to win his women. The other servicemen would be driven to distraction, straining to understand what Birkhead has that they don't.
Another thought about this film's El Cuervo Flores. He basically stalks Tana to get her attention - here in the U.S. Cuervo's surprise tactics would anger or frighten Tana, not flatter her. Just try showing up repeatedly in the path of a woman you don't know, with a flower and big smile. I have to assume that things are the same in Buenos Aires. A Boyfriend for My Wife is probably not a good movie choice for someone who has had to ask for a restraining order.
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T'was Ever Thus.