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Review

The subversive pleasure of Gael García Bernal's scoundrel in 'You’re Killing Me Susana'

Gael García Bernal is the most charming of actors, and one of the pleasures of his satisfying “You're Killing Me Susana” is watching him display that quality in a decidedly subversive way.

Directed by Roberto Sneider as an engaging romantic comedy with some serious things on its mind, “Susana” is not only a fine showcase for Bernal's talent but  it also combines tones and textures in an unexpected and involving way. It's no wonder the actor has told interviewers that he “ferverently” wanted to get this film done.

Set in both Mexico City and the American Midwest, and a commercial success in Mexico, “Susana” presents a familiar character, the charming scoundrel who takes everything in his life, especially his beautiful wife, for granted. Someone who thinks rules of any kind don't apply to him.

That would be Eligio, introduced ignoring traffic lights and moving no parking signs as he heads home to the Susana of the title, an aspiring novelist played by Spanish actress Verónica Echegui.

As written by Luis Cámara and Sneider, and based on the novel "Deserted Cities" by José Agustín, Eligio is an example of classic Mexican machismo, believing devoutly in the double standard where his wife is concerned, and counting on his charisma to cover a multitude of extramarital sins.

One of the strengths of "Susana" is that even though the movie skewers Eligio's behavior, Bernal creates a man so completely seductive that it's quite difficult for both audiences and others in the film to get angry with him, even when everyone knows full well he's acting badly.

Eligio is a working actor, earning a living through commercials and soap opera appearances: His single line of dialogue as a ranch hand, complete with straw hat, is priceless.

In fact, Eligio is so involved with womanizing and convivial drinking with a gang of friends that it takes him almost an entire day to realize that Susana has, without a word, left him. When he calls missing persons to report her gone and they tell him that she's not missing, that she's deserted, he refuses to believe it.

We see where Susana has gone before Eligio finds out, but a Google search eventually reveals that she has been accepted at a workshop for international writers at fictional Middlebrook University in Iowa.

Clearly upset, Eligio sells his car to buy a plane ticket to the United States, where his cavalier attitude amusingly gets him into trouble first with U.S. customs and then with a troublesome cabbie who drives him from the airport to the bucolic campus.

Once Eligio connects with his wife (who, much to his disgust, everyone calls Susie), a series of surprises is in store, one for the audience being the realization that his reprobate actions notwithstanding, he really loves Susana.

The surprise for Eligio is that though Susana, after the initial shock has worn off, is clearly happy to see him, she has also started a relationship with a fellow student, an enormous bearded monosyllabic Polish poet named Slawomir (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) who towers over the offended husband.

Though much of "Susana" is successfully played for amusement, the arguments that husband and wife have over their changed situation and the reasons for it are quite serious and true to life.

This is especially the case when Eligio inevitably starts acting like his old self even in frigid Iowa, becoming the center of attention and attracting notice from friendly, blond Irene (Ashley Grace), a fetching young woman.

 Though "You're Killing Me Susana" has things to say about the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, the film’s focus of is always on the personal getting of wisdom, especially where Eligio is concerned. Can he understand his own behavior enough to transcend it? And will that make a difference?

Not every romantic comedy asks those kinds of questions, but this one definitely does.

‘You’re Killing Me Susana’

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

@KennethTuran

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