Never underestimate the power of a great montage. At the outset of Tomislav Mršić’s “Cowboys,” a handful of unassuming men from a Croatian town speak to the same unseen director. Rather than a series of poorly-delivered monologues or off-key warbling of show tunes, this wisely-paced opening is the simplest kind of audition sequence. A character introduction shortcut, perhaps, but an appropriate encapsulation of the audience-pleasing qualities that make “Cowboys” an unapologetically enjoyable film.
Saša (Saša Anočić) is that director charged with giving that town their first theatrical production in a decade and a half. Shortly after the aforementioned quick run through the lineup of players, we soon find that these men were not chosen for a varied look at the spectrum of masculinity or to test a group with varying levels of theatrical experience. It’s simply because they were the only ones who bothered to show up.
Among these lone participants are perfume salesman Miodrag (Rakan Rushaidat), mother’s favorite Javor (Hrvoje Barišić) and leading-man type Ivan (Radovan Ruzdjak). The crew later absorbs an offbeat brother-sister team of Juraj, fascinated with electrical circuitry and Marica, who becomes the play’s requisite love interest (to the chagrin of the other, unattracted cast members). After some disheveled attempts to get the framework of a show down, they brainstorm the idea of putting on a staged Western.
It’s not long before rehearsals start and “Cowboys” hones in on its real strength of leaving room for comedic toss-offs like Saša’s understated, mid-brainstorm delivery of the line “Bravo, ‘Rio Bravo.’” Some of the best ones — like having one of the Western’s characters named Billi Rubin — even sail over the heads of the characters. But the sincerity with which each of these men soon approach the project keeps Saša’s efforts to inspire from feeling condescending.
The theatrical origins of the “Cowboys” screenplay (Mrsic is working from the original stageplay of the same name, written by Anočić) don’t hinder the film’s translation to the screen. Mrsic is able to linger a few extra moments on a mumbled conversation happening upstage and some choice facial reactions shortly afterward. While the camera picks up the more imperceptible shifts that may not have been visible to someone watching the stage version from the back row, the film preserves the grand shows of slapstick physical comedy designed for those very theatergoers.
Mršić gets a lot of comedic mileage by capitalizing on having all of his featured players in the same place and watching as they scramble to adapt to each successive wrinkle of the production. Anyone who’s taken an entry-level acting class will recognize the elemental theater lessons that Saša tries to impart on his cast (and appreciate all the more when those exercises devolve into hilarious animal-mimicking misadventures). A handful of these characters get to transcend their initial one-sentence character description and find other ways to distinguish themselves. Živko Anočić shines as Domagoj, the timid featured player who slowly assumes a more assertive role both in and out of rehearsal.
When the film is forced to indulge its plot, it occasionally treads onto uneasy ground. Kruno Klabucar’s Bruno brings a different perspective to the group late in the proceedings, but it’s never fully clear whether he or his dialogue is the real punchline. One actor’s debts to a local criminal provide an opportunity for two of the actors to bond outside the theater, but that thread is soon jettisoned before it’s allowed to truly serve its purpose. As the tiny bubble of their show continues to get popped and the outside stresses begin to pile up, it doesn’t feel gratuitous, but the cohesiveness of the film suffers slightly.
Ultimately, the film is less concerned with plot mechanics than capturing how these tiny peeks into the rehearsal process slowly transform the individuals that comprise it. It shares its working-class, do-it-yourself appeal with “The Full Monty,” but seeing Saša teach his students the finer points of dramatic arts also recalls the DNA of high school comedies, like checking in with a band of John Hughes misfits ten or fifteen years later.
The central question hovering over the production of the play is “Just because you can, does that mean you should?” but the film surrounding it never suffers from that same query. A standout sequence, featuring an unexpectedly poignant Skeeter Davis cover, is a perfect microcosm of the film: one not afraid to pause, even if it means just stopping to stare at (and revel in) the pleasantly surprising.
That this story, which draws so much on the westerns of generations past, sails right through to a similarly Hollywood-inspired ending is far from a condemnation. Even if the final product seems overly polished, there’s a payoff in charting the “before” and “after” of the climactic performance. Many of the players in this story posit the Western as the universal genre, not just for filmmakers but for audiences in general. Ultimately, it’s not so much the style that gives “Cowboys” its overarching appeal, but what it derives from its unlikely camaraderie. These amateurs may have stumbled into something special, but the film that showcases their story has a charm that’s far from accidental.
“Cowboys” was Croatia’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Academy Awards. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.
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