Less than a year after it was released in his native Italy, Paolo Genovese’s smash hit “Perfect Strangers” inspired a Greek remake. Within two years, there were nearly a dozen other remakes, including versions made in Spain, South Korea, France, Hungary, China, and India, with still more films planned in Poland, Germany, Qatar, and Sweden. (Wondering where the American version is? The Weinstein Company snapped up English-language rights before the company collapsed.)
Now Mexico is getting in on the act. Manolo Caro’s take on the lively chamber play is a modern comedy of manners that may hinge on the influence of cell phones and the internet, but chronicles emotions and twists that don’t need technological fluffing. The setup of Caro’s “Perfect Strangers” — released as “Perfectos desconocidos” in Mexico late last year, now arriving in the United States care of Lionsgate’s Hispanic arm, Pantelion Films — adheres more closely to Genovese’s original feature, centering on a group of seven friends who embark on a nutty “party game” that threatens to ruin more than their dinner. Snappy, witty, and fast-paced, Caro’s film quickly sets up the central characters, hinting at the revelations along the way (one likes to drink, another is too shifty when reading texts), but also building in some genuine surprises.
The film’s title is, of course, a bit of a joke: Six of the seven central characters have known each other for over two decades, and the sole interloper married into the group. Caro’s film opens with glimpses of the three couples who form the initial grouping (a lone holdout, Franky Martín’s Pepe, will arrive later), gently tipping off the drama to come. There’s Flora (Mariana Treviño) and Ernesto (Miguel Rodarte), the aforementioned drinker and furtive texter, followed by sexy newlyweds Ana (Ana Claudia Talancón) and Mario (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, recently seen in “Widows”), and then their bickering hosts Eva (Cecilia Suárez) and Antonio (Bruno Bichir), who are at odds over how to parent their teenage daughter Nina (Camila Valero).
Tight-knit and terribly intertwined in each other’s lives, the group are ostensibly celebrating an eclipse (not the only seemingly otherworldly element in a film grounded in real-world drama) by way of a cozy dinner party, but simmering tensions soon give way to the desire to play a game. It’s Eva who hits upon the idea, thanks to a combination of her own guilt, chatter about a peripheral friend whose marriage was destroyed by a text message, and the growing sense that the men and women of this particular friend group have very different ideas about how honesty works. And it doesn’t hurt that Eva is the most forceful of the group, thanks to a standout performance from Suárez that always hints that there is more going on just under the surface.
The rules are simple: each of them will put their cell phones on the table, and every single text or email or phone call that comes in will be shared with the group. If you’ve got nothing to hide, why would you hide anything, they wonder to each other, even as it’s clear that no one will get away from this merry game intact. The first text shared with the group sets the tone for more revelations (and more overreactions) to come, and cracks emerge almost immediately, even as the messages run from the low-stakes (like an invite to a soccer game) to the life-altering. “Perfect Strangers” takes too much time to get to its big game — nearly its full first act is consumed by introductions and set dressing, most of it unnecessary, considering how believable the group’s chemistry is — but once it kicks into gear, the effect is dizzying.
Tracking shots that push around (and around, and around) Eva and Antonio’s table increase the sense of claustrophobia, while a pulsating score leans into horror conventions. And yet Caro and his game cast manage to keep things afloat and relatively light, even as worlds are crumbling. The final act is wall to wall with “oh shit” moments, some of which have been artfully built up and some of which come as huge surprises, though nothing feels out of place or unbelievable. Caro’s increasingly tight narrative ends at the precisely right moment, one that engenders both deeper exploration and light laughs, beyond the reach of a cell phone screen.
Lionsgate/Pantelion Films will release “Perfect Strangers” on Friday, January 11.