The iconic Mexican comic actor Cantinflas warrants a more amusing bio-pic than “Cantinflas” gives him. A historically interesting story is painted in broad, colorless strokes, alternating as it does between soap opera and slapstick.
And the comic stuff, built both on his Chaplinesque image and his wordplay, loses something in translation. If you don’t know the difference between Spanish and what one characters describes as “pure Mexican,” the slangy, catch-phrase-friendly patter that went along with the campesino (peasant) character that Mario Fortino Alfonso Moreno Reyes made famous, you’ll miss what few good jokes there are.
The movie is framed within the signature moment in the life of Cantinflas, efforts to cast him in 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” the movie that much of the non-Spanish speaking world knows him for. Michael Imperioli plays Broadway impresario Michael Todd, who aimed to launch himself in Hollywood with “the most spectacular motion picture” the screen had ever seen.
But he was trying to build this spectacle on cameos, famous actors like Sinatra whom he’d talk into doing bit parts in this adaptation of the Jules Verne story, for free. And since Todd hadn’t yet talked anybody famous — Liz Taylor was his first pitch — into making the film, he needed “The Mexican Charlie Chaplin” more than Cantinflas needed him. And shockingly to Todd, Cantinflas was already a huge star, sophisticated to the ways of the business and not willing to work for nothing just because it was a Hollywood film.
We flash back to the days when the young, aspiring boxer Mario Moreno (Oscar Jaenada) got his first job with a tent show. He wasn’t much of a boxer, but put him in the ring and he’d make people laugh with his antic footwork. Maybe he’d be a better bullfighter. Nope. More laughs.
He wasn’t much for scripts. He loved improvising. And through improvisation, he found his “character,” nicknamed the”cantina fly” by a drunken heckler. Cantinflas was born.
The movie, in Spanish with English subtitles and English (in some scenes) with Spanish subtitles, suggests his place in the class warfare of 1940s Mexico, when even the actors’ union had been corrupted by the one-party state. He adopts ragged clothes, baggy pants, an undersized hat, a bandanna and two scraggly wisps of a mustache, playing the wise-cracking peasant that gets the best of the ruling class officials, society swells and others with his patter.
“What is your profession?” he’s asked, in one stage sketch.
“A way with words.”
Jaenada, who has played Pirates on Mexican TV and in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, pretty much nails the comic, who appeared in 55 films over the course of a long career. He is funniest in the early slapstick comedy scenes, physical comedy always translates. But the movie around him is utterly conventional. Cantinflas marries a Russian dancer (Ilse Salas), they drift apart as it turns out they can’t have children, and he begins to womanize. She wants to have it out.
“I don’t know if I’m talking to you, or Cantinflas!”
Name two showbiz biographies that don’t have that cornball line in them. You can’t.
The film gets some pretty big things wrong. Yes, Charlie Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick) was a fan. He knew a Chaplin imitator when he saw one. But he’d been kicked out of the U.S. years before “Around the World in 80 Days” went into production and had nothing to do with Todd’s efforts to land Cantinflas. Yes, the film would have been nothing without Cantinflas as the comical servant Passepartoute.
No, Liz Taylor (Barbara Mori) did not have a Spanish accent, and the actor playing Marlon Brando at an awards show that may not be the Golden Globes would surely not have mispronounced fellow nominee Yul Brynner’s name.
But Jaenada and the film do a terrific job of placing the icon within his times, symbol to his class and his people, ground-breaker when it came to throwing his weight around in a Hollywood that still called Mexicans “greasers.” It’s a shame the script doesn’t capture more of the comic skills that made him that icon in the first place.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and some suggestive material
Cast: Óscar Jaenada, Michael Imperioli, Ilse Salas
Credits: Directed by Sebastian del Amo, screenplay by Edui Tijerina, Sebastian del Amo. A Pantelion/Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:46