The portmanteau picture has never been popular, exactly, but it feels like even in recent years, the form has fallen out of favor. The “[Place Name] I Love You” series ends up with increasingly diminishing returns, horror movies like “Trick’R’Treat” and “V/H/S” reach a fraction of the audience that something like “Creepshow” did, and movies with multiple storylines seem to follow the “Magnolia“/”Traffic” crosscutting structure rather than separating into shorter self-contained segments.
It’s fitting then that twenty years after the premiere of “Pulp Fiction” at Cannes, the Official Competition hosts another portmanteau picture. Like Tarantino’s breakthrough, Argentine director Damian Szifron‘s “Wild Tales” (produced by Pedro Almodovar, which undoubtedly helped it secure its slot) is a collection of short films by a young filmmaker out to make his name, with an energy and sense of humor that’s somewhat atypical for the festival. Unlike “Pulp Fiction,” it collects six stories collected loosely only by theme, and as such, can’t quite escape some of the inherent issues of the genre, although it certainly marks the arrival of a talent to watch in its filmmaker.
The film jumps straight in with the briefest of its stories, about a group of strangers on a plane who discover they have a connection to each other. It’s immediately sly, well-written and funny, and has a killer punchline that surely marks it as one of the more arresting openings of the year.
Five more stories follow from there, following a waitress flirting with taking revenge on the loan shark that led to her father’s suicide, a road rage incident that escalates beyond all reasonable proportion, a demolitions expert whose life implodes thanks to a parking ticket, a wealthy family’s attempt to cover up a hit and run by persuading their groundskeeper to take the fall, and a wedding that, even with many prior contenders, has a good claim to being the most disastrous ever put on screen.
It takes a little while to realize, but the stories are connected by themes of revenge, and it’s a testament to the quality of Szifron’s writing that he makes that most tired of cinematic through-lines seem fresh in most of these. In part, it’s because there’s a real force of anger behind them, with most dealing with the poorer elements of society being screwed over by the wealthy or privileged, and usually getting to enact some payback (though some end up suffering their own blowback).
It’s not quite consistent enough to make the whole thing feel of a piece, though, but more damaging is the quality that invariably comes with this structure — in short, it’s a bit hit and miss. We were convinced after the first segment that this was pretty much going to be the best thing since sliced bread, while the second was strong too, if a little more conventional. The third is probably the best of them all — taking a simple premise and wringing out every drop of twisted fun from it, not least in an ingeniously staged final fight sequence inside an upturned car.
From there, things get more patchy. The fourth (led by Argentinean megastar Ricardo Darin, of “Nine Queens” and “The Secret Of Their Eyes” fame) is the most familiar and predictable of the bunch, with an ending telegraphed from way out. Ultimately, it’s not saying much except that the people who give parking tickets are dicks, and that’s rather low-hanging fruit. The final two are better, but the hit-and-run segment feels like it’s taken from a darker, more savage version of the movie, and the wedding one from a broader, more conventional one.
They both also go on too long, something that’s certainly true of the movie as a whole. At 90 minutes, it would be even more fun than it already is, but at over two hours, it starts to test the patience a bit, and makes you wish Szifron had trimmed one or two of the lesser segments. As it is, it feels like the director has sat you down and shown you all the short films he ever made in an attempt to get you to finance his next feature.
Then again, you probably would. Szifron can clearly work with actors–there isn’t a bad performance in the film, with Erica Rivas, the bride from the wedding section, a particular standout–but more impressive is the technical chops he displays. It’s crisply and cleanly shot throughout, and the filmmaker shows a rare feel for how to not only make comedy land, but also to make it actually feel cinematic too. It’s the sort of breakthrough that will undoubtedly be turning heads in Hollywood even before Sony Pictures Classics release the film later in the year.
Almost any one of these shorts (because ultimately, the film does boil down to a collection of shorts) would have you sitting up and paying attention. Together, it only cements Szifron’s clear talent, but it does also overstay its welcome just a tiny bit. [B]