Saturday, February 25, 2012

Chico & Rita

"Chico & Rita" by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando, is a classic star-crossed lovers meets showbiz drama, except this one takes place partially in Cuba, has jazz, and is animated in a slightly disjointed, penciled style. Since it drops the ball in both its central love story and its general structure, it's lucky that there are details and subplots to savor. I found the character of Ramon (voiced by Mario Guerra), the agent of the titular characters, much more interesting than Chico and Rita's much-prolonged struggle to stay together that includes heartbreaks and other lovers galore. He's the center that keeps the characters together, and he does the same gig for the film itself.

The film begins with Chico (Eman Xor Ona), a shoeshiner, returning to his apartment, pouring himself a couple drinks, and listening to a song that he wrote to win a contest come on the radio. It's a nicely familiar opening that suggests a grand love lost. We come to learn Chico is an extremely proficient piano player, and that he had his sights on his collaborative partner, Rita (Limara Meneses), from the first time he saw her in a bar somewhere. She rejects him initially, but the two come to have a strained but at times incredibly passionate relationship that becomes ever the more complicated (yet in some respects simpler) when she gets whisked off to New York as the next big thing.

I can't be the only one who's seen this scenario enough times so that a story like this without any other perks is a lackluster bore. Trueba and his fellow directors and his fellow screenwriter Ignacio Martinez de Pison seem to at least partially realize that, so we get some brushes with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and, most prominently, Chano Pozo, plus a third character in Ramon that provides much of the comic relief as well as an additional source of heartbreak. But these are, in my mind, not enough to justify yet another take on this motif, one that "The Artist" to mined to just the same lack of effect. This one may have a chance in its category of Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, but even if it seems like one of a couple underground choices (the other being semi-cult-favorite "Rango"), it doesn't come through for me. The animation seems like a good idea in some ways (allows more freedom) but also somewhat of a detractor (lessens the impact; makes it into more of a curio than it should be). The style partially gets at the push and pull of precision and improvisation in jazz, but ultimately leans too far towards the latter, whereas the film seems mostly lost in the netherworld of cliches, hurriedness, and sentimentality, with an ending that struck me (even in late night screen of fatigue I had) as unsatisfying. C+

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