Not, in fact, the Spaghetti Western from Spain (Paella Western?) that it sounds like, "A Gun In Each Hand" ("Una Pistola En Cada Mano"), which plays Out of Competition at the Rome Film Festival, is a contemporary comedy detailing a series of encounters in which pairs of friends, acquaintances, ex-spouses and potential lovers meet and talk and, well, that's about it. With a logline like that, you need to be sure your script delivers. Thankfully this one, co-written by director Cesc Gay, as is his wont, does; its portrait of a group of Spanish men in their forties is by turns gently scathing, comical and bittersweet, but it never feels anything less than true. The fresh, funny performances bring the tight dialogue to firecracker life, and an intelligent shooting style keeps the film, talky through it is, from ever feeling stagy — the whole package is pretty much irresistible. It's not just any film that keeps a jaded end-of-festival press crowd in their seats through a drawn-out projector foul-up, but even the mere 20 minutes we'd watched by then had us all convinced that it would be worth the wait.
Two old friends E and J (Eduard Fernandez from "The Skin I Live In" and Leonardo Sbaraglia from "Red Lights") who had lost touch meet up accidentally and catch up during a downpour. Another man, S (Javier Camara, the star of Almodovar's "Talk To Her") drops his son off with his ex-wife (Clara Segura) and works up to asking her to take him back. L (Luis Tosar, "The Limits of Control") is walking his dog when he encounters G (Ricardo Darin of "The Secret in Their Eyes") who is staking out the house of his wife's lover. In a large office, P (Eduardo Noriega) hits on a colleague (Candela Pena) he's never really spoken to before. Maria (Leonor Watling) spots her husband's friend A (Alberto San Juan) and gives him a ride, while elsewhere Maria's husband (Jordi Molla) meets A's wife Sara (Cayetano Guillen Cuervo) and they walk together to the party they're both attending. These encounters, often chance meetings, are never less than surprising and illuminating as to the characters of their participants, and each one causes the men involved to come to a new realization about themselves, or ten. And yet what's most impressive is how unforced and unmanipulated the scenes feel. Each one plays out in strict real time, and so we get a real sense of these men in the present tense at a moment of revelation, as the penny drops and as their conception of themselves and their place in the world changes. It's often funny, and, though the last two sections may not quite attain the heights of the first four, never less than fascinating.
The actors deserve a lot of credit here, and it's such a strong ensemble of established Spanish actors that it's hard to isolate a single standout, though we will say that Camara's ghastly rictus of a fake smile when he finally realizes his hopes of reconciliation are dashed, made us laugh, squirm and feel a bit like crying all at once, and Fernandez' rumpled, rueful charm was probably the first thing that hooked us in. But with the encounters often playing out largely in that fertile and revealing, but awkward period between announcing you're leaving and actually going, the whole cast rises brilliantly to the challenge of making every moment a hesitant decision, and every second a battle between what's socially expected and what is perhaps the real agenda.
Particularly pleasant is that despite the focus being on men and their issues, the women are well-drawn, rounded characters too. Without sanctifying them, the script actually seems to admire them for their confidence and sense of self, which often counterpoints the struggles of their floundering menfolk. If there are criticisms they may focus on the overwhelming white-middle-class-ness of the film, but that is clearly Gay's milieu, and he imbues his portrait of it with such incisive, puncturing wit and such a keen eye for the absurdity of it all that it hardly feels like a sacred cow. And besides, aren't white, middle class Western men the only group privileged enough to enjoy the luxury of a masculinity crisis?
Ultimately the stories intersect in the end, the characters come together and we learn a little about how each one relates to the others. But this ending is played, wisely, less as a big reveal than an epilogue; a footnote to the action that has gone before. Because Gay has already done the work: 'Gun' is essentially a series of six two-hander conversations, and is therefore all but plotless. Which should be sort of boring. But the conversations themselves have all the twists and turns you could hope for, and make our growing acquaintance with these men feel as absorbing and engaging as any heist thriller. With "A Gun in Each Hand" seldom has the truism that character is plot been more triumphantly and enjoyably proven. [A-]