Your Mama Should Know

Y Tu Mamá También is breezy, funny, and sexy as hell; Showtime is lazy, artless, and cost $90 million.

What’s liberating about Alfonso Cuarón’s terrific new sex comedy Y Tu Mamá También (IFC Films) isn’t its uninhibited carnal gropings, its narrator’s persistently sociopolitical interjections, or even its storyline, in which two horny teen-age boys embark on a road trip to a beach paradise with a 30ish woman, who ends up teaching them a lesson about the impermanence of life. It’s all of the above. It’s the weave. It’s the way that the director seems right there in the moment with his three central characters, sharing their space and seeing what they see—and then, suddenly, through the magic of his cinematic language, moving backward, forward, and sideways to tell us what they don’t see and might never know. It’s the way Cuarón demonstrates how a simple teen comedy can suddenly blossom into a study of sexual mores, a Mexican political allegory, a song of lamentation—and still be breezy and funny and sexy as hell.

The movie reportedly began life as a short story by the Mexican-born director’s brother, Carlos, who adapted it for the screen and retained its arc and narrative asides. And that’s how I like to think of it—as a dazzlingly illustrated short story. The director was coming off two financially unsuccessful Hollywood films—his transporting, emotionally charged A Little Princess (1995) and his flawed but exciting Great Expectations (1998)—and he wanted to do something simpler, more immediate, more down-to-earth.

Well, you can’t get too much more immediate and down-to-earth than the opening of Y Tu Mamá También, in which a peek-a-boo camera moves into a bedroom where a naked boy and his girlfriend are in the final throes of intercourse. She is about to leave on a summer vacation to Italy; he makes her promise not to be unfaithful with anyone; she extracts the same vow from him. A short time later, he and his buddy—who has also bid arrivederci for the summer to his girlfriend—go off to get drunk and stoned and look for women. They don’t even think about the disconnect between their ferocious demand for eternal fidelity and the casualness with which they chase after transient sexual gratification.

But then, they don’t think much about anything. Tenoch (Diego Luna) is a rich boy, his dad way up (and apparently on the take) in the PRI government. His friend, Julio (Gael García Bernal), is poor and has a left-wing activist sister, but his world, too, revolves around girls and sundry intoxicants. As they drive through the city, they don’t notice a dead man beside the road in a pool of blood. Then the ambient sound drops out, a narrator explains that this was a migrant worker who’d tried to cross a dangerous stretch of highway to save time on a grueling commute, and the sound comes back for more discussion of Tenoch’s and Julio’s sex lives.

As guests at a lavish family wedding (in which elpresidente puts in an appearance), they put the moves on Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a lovely, pensive woman who turns out to be the Spanish-born wife of Tenoch’s cousin. They regale her with tales of a distant—and made-up—beach, a deserted paradise supposedly called Heaven’s Mouth; and when her husband phones drunkenly from a conference a few days later to confess that he has just slept with another woman, she surprises the pair by proposing a trip. As the mere mention of her—while Tenoch and Julio feverishly masturbate atop parallel diving boards over a ritzy pool—has caused them both to ejaculate instantly, they accept with alacrity. Tenoch has had his fancy car taken away for telling his father he planned to major in literature instead of economics (to make it easier to sleep with “left-wing chicks”), so the three will use Julio’s sister’s ramshackle wheels. As they leave Mexico City, the narrator mentions that the sister needs the car the next week to deliver food and medicine to the rural poor.

It’s an interesting trick, these aural footnotes—Brechtian but not exhortatory. The tone is deadpan-ironic and very leftist, the implication that these boys have no notion of the corrupt class system that permits such rampant economic exploitation. At first, Tenoch and Julio don’t comment on the difference in their class—although, as the narrator points out, Julio lights a match to disguise the smell of his shit in Tenoch’s grand bathroom, and Tenoch lifts the toilet seat with his toe in Julio’s relatively humble digs. Later, in the course of the road trip, the narrator will tell us that Tenoch has no idea he’s passing the home village of the housekeeper who has lovingly cared for him all his life. The narrator will tell us the fate of people we see glancingly and people we never see, like the girl whose hat Luisa has been given, who died trying to cross into Arizona for a better life.

All this makes Y Tu Mamá También sound like a drag—except the narration is winking and subversive, not pedantic. It’s there so Cuarón won’t have to resort to dreary realism to make his points, so he can quickly drive them home and then focus on the explosively ripe sexual tensions. Will the unstable, spontaneously exhibitionistic Luisa seduce one or both of the boys—and will their relationship change depending on the distribution of her favors? Yes, yes, yes. Yes to everything. Yes, there’s lots of flesh and some hilariously misbegotten couplings. Yes, the movie flirts with the idea that by compulsively seducing each other’s girlfriends and sharing a woman, Tenoch and Julio have the hots for each other—and Cuarón explores the notion, or at least exploits it for good, kinky, discomfiting fun. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is at the characters’ level as all three of them feverishly, drunkenly give in to their impulses and end up creating only more tension.

Hanging over all is the mysterious Luisa, a volatile creature who moves from recklessly acting out to dispensing a lesson that will take the boys years to absorb—if they absorb it at all. I’m not sure what I think of a certain cataclysmic revelation in the denouement—I go back and forth on it, and maybe you will, too—but the upshot is that Y Tu Mamá También is that unprecedented thing: a teen sex comedy astride a grave. A long, long shot of a sotted but all-seeing Luisa sashaying toward her pupils/prey from a jukebox manages to be funny, erotic, and desperately sad at once—it carries both the promise of sexual liberation and the melancholy awareness that all is fleeting and will pass. The movie holds both those thoughts, too—in every frame. It’s an exhilarating trip.

Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy play mismatched buddy cops in the new action comedy Showtime (Warner Bros.), and their back-and-forth has no tricky rhythms or flash; they just say the lines and move on, as if they want to get it over with and go home. A buddy cop movie that pretends to spoof buddy cop movies along with reality TV shows, Showtime is so lazy and artless that … that …  it saps my will to come up with a good quip: Witless in itself, it is the source of witlessness in others.

I wouldn’t even mention it except that it cost $90 million. Ninety million. Ninety million. Ninety million—I can’t stop writing it. The first episode of The Lord of the Rings came in for not too much more than that; Showtime, meanwhile, is one of the shabbiest-looking movies I’ve ever seen; the cinematographer lights Rene Russo, as a TV producer, as if he wanted to end her career—and she abets him by giving her first shrill performance. As a critic lo these many years I admit to nodding off in the occasional screening; but this is the first time it’s ever happened during a car chase. The mismatched buddy cops were following some blond guy with a big gun when some police cars hit some other police cars, and then … soothing darkness. A colleague said he thought it was kinder to let me sleep. I was dreaming about a world where 90 million buys a movie like this. Someone should project the budget on a big screen—I bet it has more laughs.