Many have taken a shot at creating a “Zoom” call comedy or drama or dramedy during COVID. But it took actress (“Parks & Rec.”) turned actress-director Natalie Morales and actor and sometime writer-director Mark Duplass (“Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “Safety Not Guaranteed”) to stick the landing.
“Language Lessons” leaves COVID more or less out of the picture. It’s just an affluent, middle-aged Oaklander unknowingly signed-up for Spanish lessons by his husband, and the utterly charming Spanish speaker on the other end of the video calls.
The unseen Will signed up former-Spanish speaker Adam up for 100 lessons, immersive conversations carried out via video chats which he can do from the comfort of their too-tasteful hillside McMansion.
“Casa GRANDE,” Adam admits, and Cariño, as his teacher is nicknamed, has to agree. She’s taken $1,000 for 100 lessons, so it’s no great shock to learn (a little later) that she’s not down the street or across the state. She’s in another country.
Adam is “muy incómodo,” he confesses. VERY uncomfortable. “It’s bad that I have all the things and that you don’t have them.” Sure, her perfectly-streaked hair and designer glasses suggest “Hollywood,” just a little. But her simple video call background of chalkboard and bulletin board and taking $10 per lesson/conversation is a real liberal “privilege” guilt trip.
Morales and Duplass give us a taste of the effortlessly charming and undemanding movie that “Language Lessons” might have been in the opening scenes. He’s conversational in Spanish, but makes plenty of grammatical stumbles. And Duplass masterfully conveys a man trying to remember what he once knew, and mentally searching for words he might never have mastered as he does. He even makes the classic gringo new-to-Spanish boo-boo.
“Yo soy muy MUY embarazado!” he confesses. And Morales, like every native Spanish speaker in all of recorded history, cackles at yet another American confusing “I am so VERY embarrassed” for the Spanish word for “pregnant.”
We just have time to settle in for a cute movie about learning a new language when “Language Lessons” takes its first turn toward serious. It’s not the last. As these two banter, struggle to schedule this weekly meet-up into routine and slowly let layers of their real lives peel away in the conversations, grief and danger and melodrama Zoom into play.
Our leads have the kind of chemistry rom-com screenwriters dream of, and the fact that Adam is gay and rich and Cariño isn’t only makes it their connection that much more interesting, and great fodder for jokes.
“You’re so poor,” as Adam puts it, “and I’m pregnant.”
They chat or video-mail each other about their lives and movies, mostly in Spanish (with English subtitles), but slipping into Spanglish when the need arises. She catches him in bed, just waking up, in the pool or sweating in the home gym. She gives him a peek at the bamboo garden behind her house, and even has a tipsy musical moment — via Zoom — commemorating his birthday.
When tragedy strikes, they share and reach out to one another, because they’re compassionate human beings. But there’s a lot being avoided here, a lot she isn’t saying or that he isn’t figuring out.
The film travels from light and frothy to abruptly and less-convincingly sad, and for my money, that happens too early on in the narrative. Give us more of the giggly stumbling through Spanglish bonding before turning dark.
But even in the film’s third act lurch into sheer melodrama, with brittle conversations carried out on eggshells, Morales and Duplass are wholly immersed in character. The twists are believable because they’re totally credible in their roles.
They make “Language Lessons” a most engaging human connection, and a seriously entertaining way to brush up on your own rusty Spanish in the bargain.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Mark Duplass, Natalie Morales
Credits: Directed by Natalie Morales, scripted by Mark Duplass and Natalie Morales. A Shout! Factory release.
Running time: 1:31