Of all the Technicolor musicals ever made about an over-endowed Spanish narcoleptic transgendered prostitute with a dwarf roommate and an oversexed rapping boyfriend, "20 Centimeters" is certainly among the dullest.
The film opens promisingly enough, as an unconscious Marieta is dumped from a van onto the side of a street, only to dream of an all-out musical interlude, with her singing a lively rendition of Marisol's "Tómbola" while a parade of dancers step lively down the streets of Madrid. As big-time musicals go, this opening sequence is a dizzying marvel and a complete blast.
And then there is nowhere to go but down. Marieta was born Adolfo and dreams of the day when she can have her operation, remove those pesky twenty centimeters, and finally be the woman she knows she is inside. Until then, she makes a living turning tricks with johns who get off on those living between genders, passes time with friends and family, grumbles at the disapproving hags across the street, takes a shot at a legit job, and eventually finds love in the form of a hunky delivery guy (Pablo Puyol). Ah, but he wants sex, and lots of it, and all of it with her twenty centimeters, and can she love a man who doesn't want her to be a woman?
The first thing to come to mind during all of this is "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a whallop of a gender-bending musical so electrifying that its reflex comparisons to "20 Centimeters" makes this new film pale even more. It's all in writer/director Ramón Salazar's handling of the material. Both films feature plenty of colorful camp, but while "Hedwig" burned the screen with a biting rock rage (even in its most playful songs), "20 Centimeters" wobbles along from song to song, content in slapping together a string of increasingly uninteresting music videos, giving barely a passing thought to any text, sub- or otherwise. "Hedwig" had the full fury of its title character behind every scene; "20 Centimeters" thinks it would be fun to have everyone dance around to a mediocre cover of Madonna's "True Blue." Even "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" had some fire in its belly that blazed through its winking tone. It's a fire disappointingly absent here.
The movie does come close at times. Salazar paints two worlds, a lush dream world for Marieta's musical flights of fancy, and a dreary reality filled with ugly people and dank situations. Performing Marieta in both worlds is Mónica Cervera ("The Perfect Crime"), who makes some daring choices in her role - the least of which finds her slapping on a gigantic prosthetic penis (which is seen repeatedly here, as are real body parts of both genders). Less risky but more successful in building the character is her choice to completely de-glam the real Marieta, who's paunchy and homely with a nasty overbite; compare this to the glitzy, elegant dream Marieta, and we understand her dream world all the more.
Cervera is the best thing about "20 Centimeters," a touching performance in a movie that sadly doesn't really give a damn. Salazar's films have been compared to the works of Pedro Almodóvar - the dreamy camp aesthetics, the heartfelt concentration on female characters - but Salazar lacks so much of Almodóvar's depth. After trudging through a rather generic plot about Marieta's real-life woes (including a dwarf as a roomate, a twist that adds nothing but begs to be seen as quirky and hip), we discover that they're just limp story points to take us from musical number to musical number. Salazar doesn't really care about Marieta's quest for gender liberation; after all, her only challenge (beyond narcolepsy, another look-at-the-kookiness bit of desperation) is a boyfriend who loves her genital girth, and, well, I guess that's sad?
After stumbling through several weak song-and-dance dream sequences, each one losing just a little more of the excitement of the film's opener, Salazar eventually just gives up, first plodding through a few more (a flat smooth-jazz bit, a flatter poodle-skirt take on "I Only Want To Be With You"), then going for the big gimmicks. Completely unexplainable is an homage of sorts to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," with Marieta as a vampire-zombie; it's so pointless that the novelty fades after only a few measures of music. And the grand finale, set to Queen's "I Want To Break Free," should be the emotional show-stopper, but no. The bravura of Freddie Mercury is replaced by a barely inspired bit that struggles to create the slightest cinema magic. The song is a great choice for the ending, but the movie just can't get around to feeling the oomph of the tune.
Salazar does have a sharp eye for visuals, and although he's not too clever at staging big musical numbers (some of the bigger sequences must have stumped him, as the rest are easier-to-film low-key affairs), his eye for a handsome shot here and there help keep "20 Centimeters" above water, if only barely. For a movie this audacious in tone, content, and theme, Salazar has managed to drain all life out of what should naturally be a most lively project.
The transfer doesn't help with the blah aspect of the film. Instead of eye-popping colors, we get a soft, mildly grainy, slightly washed out look to the whole thing. It should be vibrant all over. It's not. Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.
Choose between decent 5.1 and lesser 2.0 for the original Spanish language track. Again, this soundtrack should pop when it's merely just sorta there. Optional English subtitles are available.
Just a very brief photo gallery of production shots, the film's original trailer (in non-anamorphic widescreen), and a few previews for other TLA releases.
Those looking for edgier fare - the kind with intentional kitsch blended with risqué material - should Rent It. You just might find enough of interest here (namely, Cervera's bold performance) for a one-time viewing, provided you're not afraid to fast-forward every now and then. Everyone else will do fine to ignore it.