Gael Garcia Bernal’s effortless magnetism is the complicating factor — and the only compelling one — in You’re Killing Me Susana (Me estas matando Susana), a romantic comedy that takes a casually unfaithful husband out of his comfort zone. Based on the 1982 novel Ciudades Desiertas (Deserted Cities) by Jose Agustin, Roberto Sneider’s underpowered feature looks at romance and machismo through a cross-cultural lens, its comments sometimes insightful, but most of the time frustratingly muted.
Garcia Bernal plays Eligio, a Mexico City soap-opera actor whose old-school double standard gives him license to screw around with a makeup artist (Cassandra Ciangherotti) — clearly not his only dalliance — and leaves him gobsmacked when his wife deserts him. Eligio’s cluelessness is always entertaining and often cringe-inducing. At the laughable end of the dial are his self-satisfied pronouncements that “we’re doing great” when asked about his marriage, even after he discovers that Susana (Spanish actress Veronica Echegui) has packed her things and split. Along queasier lines is his no-warning, full-speed-ahead trip to Iowa, where, he learns after a few online clicks, Susana has enrolled in a writers’ workshop.
The leading man charms, but the central romance never matters.
At the fictional Middlebrook University (Winnipeg plays Iowa), Susana has opted for another form of chauvinism, indulging in a fling with Polish poet Slawomir (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson). A hulking longhaired seducer, Slawomir never speaks in the film. When he’s not delivering the desired goods in bed, he looms demandingly. Though she’s none too happy to see her abandoned and demanding husband, Susana gives Eligio another chance after putting up a bare modicum of resistance — not that his clinginess gives her much option as he settles into her dorm room.
In its matter-of-fact depiction of such trade-offs between a smiling stalker and a mildly yearning escapee, the screenplay by Luis Camara and Sneider exposes the pathology of Eligio and Susana’s marriage. Beyond that, it gives us cross-cultural observations as Eligio insinuates himself into the workshop community. Along with his first snowy winter, he gets his first visit to a shooting range and applies old habits to new territory by flirting with a chirpy Midwestern blonde (Ashley Grace).
His sunny but benighted certainty spins into a kind of flailing, especially in comparison with the mountainous, silent Slawomir. There’s something ultraromantic about his pursuit of Susana — and also exceedingly self-involved. That’s a crucial insight — and a lesson that Eligio eventually takes to heart. But Susana never comes into focus as the talented writer she’s meant to be, and the supposed tensions between her and Eligio, the ups and downs, rapprochements and reversals rapidly grow less interesting as the overlong film proceeds. As for the outsider’s view of American culture that it offers, the glances toward gun love and immigration anxiety amount to mild exasperation, quickly dispelled.
But in Eligio, who finds dreams both good and bad coming true, and who’s incarnated with the sly charm of an ego-tripper by Garcia Bernal, we get a character far more fascinating than the movie around him.
Production companies: La Banda Films, Cuevano Films
Distributor: Hola Mexico Distribution
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Veronica Echegui, Ashley Grace, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, Cassandra Ciangherotti, Jadyn Wong, Adam Hurtig, Barbara Garrick, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Sophie Alexander
Director: Roberto Sneider
Screenwriters: Luis Camara, Roberto Sneider,
Based on the novel Deserted Cities (Ciudades Desiertas) by Jose Agustin
Producer: Roberto Sneider
Executive producers: Ricardo Sneider, Phyllis Laing
Director of photography: Antonio Calvache
Production designer: Eugenio Caballero
Costume designer: Gilda Navarro
Editor: Aleshka Ferrero
Composer: Victor Hernandez Stumpfhauser
Casting: Sandra Becker, Joanna Colbert, Jim Heber, John Buchan, Jason Knight