Judge William Lee has yet to meet a Brazilian he didn't like.
"We're in Brazil. You've got to open up."
In addition to his fiction and documentary filmmaking credits, Jonathan Nossiter (Sunday) is also an author and trained sommelier. He was born in the United States, grew up in Europe and currently resides in Rio de Janeiro. Conveniently, that's the setting for his latest writing-directing effort, a comedy about expatriates from around the world discovering themselves in the marvelous South American city.
Facts of the Case
Charlotte (Charlotte Rampling, Never Let Me Go) is a British plastic surgeon newly arrived in Rio to give special consultations (typically counseling women against going under the knife). She's also recently left her husband and is looking forward to her newfound freedom, which affords her no shortage of male admirers.
Irène (Irène Jacob, Three Colors: Red) is an anthropologist recently moved to Rio. She is interviewing Brazilian domestic servants for her latest research so her husband Antoine (Jean-Marc Roulot) invites his brother-in-law Robert (Jérôme Kircher) to work as her videographer. When Antoine discovers they're having an affair, his jealousy inspires some daring behavior.
William (Bill Pullman, Surveillance) is the new U.S. ambassador to Brazil, thanks to his oil family's connections. He's in over his head so he decides to hide in one of the city's notorious favelas. His disappearance into the crime-ridden slums generates international headlines speculating that he's been kidnapped. After touring the poor neighborhood with the help of an enterprising hustler named Fish (Fisher Stevens, Henry's Crime), the ambassador discovers his new mission in life.
Rio Sex Comedy seems designed to challenge viewers' popular perceptions of what the Brazilian metropolis is. The exotic locale is populated with beautiful people, of course, but the presence of the levelheaded surgeon draws attention to the artifice. At a rooftop cocktail party, we overhear women talking about how important it is for them to maintain the appearance of youth. Charlotte has made her career altering people's looks but in this city where looks are everything to a segment of the population (the rich segment), she would rather not ply her trade.
Rio's reputation for its crime-ridden slums is countered by the experiences of the two American characters. Fish keeps good company in the favelas and even gives guided tours through the neighborhoods. At one point, he accuses a rival tour company of playing up the threat of gangs and crime so they can cash in with tourists. William's experience is also free of violence and he becomes much more concerned with the extreme poverty he sees. When we do see young men with guns, they're not territorial gangsters but rather a display of security for a neighborhood that won't see any help from the authorities.
The exploitation of domestic servants is another societal issue the movie tackles and this is the one element that doesn't fit too well with the rest of the movie. While I don't know how pervasive favela drug gangs are or how common cosmetic surgery is for the well-heeled citizens of Rio, I can accept the reality that the movie creates. The director uses non-actors in some scenes where Irène interviews maids so some of their stories of being abused by employers are actually real. If Nossiter was recording true testimonies from maids, I wonder if they knew their participation was only in service of a fake documentary within a movie? The director has certainly tapped into a vein of authenticity with this footage. However, it doesn't pay off in the narratives of his protagonists. There isn't any probing of the class struggle between Irène and her maid, for instance.
Irène's research is merely an excuse to bring her and Robert together and this situation steers the movie back to its sex-romping center. In keeping with European comedies, adultery isn't a devastating betrayal but rather the catalyst for high jinks and Antoine's actions range from being pathetic to ridiculous to redeeming. Nossiter's light touch with all of these potentially serious dramatic beats keeps the story upbeat and lively. Instead of faulting any characters for their human weaknesses, we're eager to see them paired with a worthy mate.
The performances are uniformly good. Irène Jacob is always a pleasure to watch and here she embodies another intelligent and complex woman. Charlotte Rampling radiates her usual graceful ease and a sly sense of humor. Bill Pullman and Fisher Stevens appear to be having fun in their roles and they find the right amount of craziness for their roles. Jean-Marc Roulot flies below the radar at first but he's exactly right for the exasperated husband who gets himself into embarrassing situations. The real discovery is Daniela Dams as the Amazonian tribeswoman Fish has brought back from the jungle. Iracema could have been a silly role but Dams charmingly mixes her character's jungle innocence and sweetness with cosmopolitan smarts (she has learned city culture from watching telenovelas). Daniela Dams quietly takes over the screen and steals every scene she's in (reminding me of Penélope Cruz in her early movies).
Rio Sex Comedy is handsomely presented on DVD in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colors are warmly and solidly saturated, which is what you want with a movie set in such a sunny setting. Detail is sharp and the image is clean aside from a minor amount of grain in the darker scenes. All in all, this is a beautiful standard definition transfer. Permanent English subtitles are easy to read (white letters outlined in black) and appear only when characters speak non-English dialogue. The audio mix doesn't do much to show off its 5.1 surround capability. Dialogue (mostly English with some French) is delivered clearly from the front channels and the offbeat music selections are nicely balanced with the other sound elements without taking over the soundscape.
Nearly 30 minutes of deleted and extended scenes comprise the sole bonus feature on the disc. There is one unused scene with Fish and Charlotte that informs how their story arcs relate but otherwise the scenes assembled here were wisely left out of the picture. Extended interviews with the maids will be of further interest for those wanting to hear about the realities of domestic service in Rio but, ultimately, these scenes inspire questions about what the director intended to do with all this material. I wish there were an interview with or statement from Nossiter explaining his intended direction for this footage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This Region 1 DVD from FilmBuff has a running time of 113 minutes, which is shorter than the 124 minutes reported on IMDb. Without presuming whether a longer version would have been drastically different, in this version I feel that some of the characters' story arcs aren't properly concluded. When the final act quickly comes to a close, for example, Fish is left as the butt of a joke and that's the last we see of him. This feels unfair to the character since his motivations seemed sincere and it's surprising how the screenplay suddenly dismisses him in the end. Similarly, something is missing to bridge William's story at the conclusion of the movie and his post-credits scene that opens another direction for his character to go.
The second half of Rio Sex Comedy doesn't hold together so well. There are a couple of scenes that seem to set up moments without delivering them. Charlotte's son is an extraneous character who serves to be the target of a gag but otherwise doesn't contribute to the story. The direction that some of the characters head doesn't make a lot of sense sometimes. Nevertheless, watching these people having experiences and floundering or succeeding is quite enjoyable. Being in Rio just seems to inspire cutting loose and trying something different. This joyful, sexy adventure is definitely worth a look and it warrants at least a rental.
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