2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
How could you describe the new Spanish film, "The Other Side of the Bed"? Imagine one of Woody Allen's neurotic sex comedies, set in Spain, with younger actors, more onscreen sex and nudity, plus some elaborate musical routines, and you'll get a pretty good idea of this movie, a Spanish box-office hit being distributed here by The Sundance Channel.
"Bed" is a smart, sprightly little movie with beguiling actors and few inhibitions. Though there's nothing startlingly new here, there's a freshness and vigor to the acting, and the crisscrossing love affairs hold your interest. As we amble around the sunny Madrid streets and the active Madrid bedrooms, we can spy on some well-drawn characters.
Narcissistic Javier (Ernesto Alterio) is cheating on his pretty, good-hearted girlfriend Sonia (Paz Vega of "Talk to Her") with lively Paula (Natalia Verbeke), who is, disturbingly, the lover of Javier's moody, scruffy best pal, Pedro (Guillermo Toledo). Javier is a piece of work, a baby-faced charmer whose sexual scruples are bankrupt. Deceiving everybody, lying to Sonia about Paula and to Paula about his supposedly crumbling relationship with Sonia, this increasingly nervous Lothario also tries to steer compadre Pedro toward other women, such as the enthusiastic, gabby Pilar (Maria Esteve).
Meanwhile, Pedro, certain he's being betrayed (but unaware of his rival's identity), is cracking. And as Javier and Sonia try to console him, another affair springs up between Pedro and Sonia.
"The Other Side of the Bed" is set in an artsy, intellectual Madrid milieu, among young, sexy people who are all more prone to this game of musical beds. I first saw it with a highly amused audience at the Toronto Film Festival, but it still isn't quite the sort of movie you would expect as one of the inaugural theatrical releases of indie titan Sundance. It's intelligent but frothy, sophisticated and expertly done but, by the end, somewhat slight.
Still, I liked it. What sets it apart from an American equivalent (the good ones like Allen's and the poor ones like "My Boss's Daughter") is the greater sexual frankness and the stylized musical numbers where the characters, just like Gene Kelly or Judy Garland, suddenly break into song or dance. "Bed" isn't exactly a musical, but it does suggest another way to use songs in a sex comedy. The musical numbers, which include scenes where the other Madrid residents sing behind Javier, echoing his paranoia, blend in well, even though the cast members are hardly capable of showstoppers.
Veteran director Emilio Martinez-Lazaro and young writer David Serrano take a very casual attitude toward the story, the amours, the routines and the narrative structure. When they want somebody to sing and dance, they just set them loose - and that good-humored relaxation is part of what makes the movie work.
The other major strength of "Bed" lies in its expert performances. Alterio is the key. He's playing a rat and a cheat, a creep manipulating his little-boy charm to deceive his lover and his friends. But he's still attractive, more irresponsible than mean. One disapproves of him and wants to see him get his comeuppance (which he does), but it's hard to dislike him, largely because Alterio is so good at suggesting Javier's yuppie self-absorption, the ways he justifies all his tricks and cons, as he keeps sinking deeper into his web of lies.
Meanwhile, Toledo makes an amusingly gloomy foil. And Ramon Barea, as Sagaz, their foul-mouthed cabbie pal, gives an entertainingly rowdy critique of the perils of machismo and philandering.
The actresses are just as good, but they're not given as much comic firepower as the men. Vega, especially, has a great warming screen presence, but the filmmakers tend to make the women too nice, too long-suffering. Yet, through it all, Martinez-Lazaro stages the comic scenes with the effortless grace of a true romantic-comedy moviemaker. Serrano's writing may not be as clever as the writing in a Fernando Trueba film like "Bell Epoque," but the mood and the pace are just as easy, lewd, bright and pleasant.
That's what the whole film is: pleasant, unassuming, a nice, sassy little comedy that gives you a sparkling good time, franker sexuality and a few undemanding insights into contemporary European infidelity and the psychological stratagems of straying males. The Madrid setting and the songs give it novelty, and the actors give it zest. "The Other Side of the Bed" is fun rather than brilliant. But it works well enough. It's an amusing dive into the wrong side of the bed.
"The Other Side of the Bed"
Directed by Emilio Martinez-Lazaro; written by David Serrano; photographed by Juan Molina Temboury; edited by Angel Hernandez-Zoido; art direction by Julio Torrecilla; music by Roque Banos; produced by Tomas Cimadevella, Jose Antonio Sainz de Vicuna. A Sundance Film Series release; opens Friday, Aug. 29. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: R (sexuality, nudity and language).Javier - Ernesto Alterio
Sonia - Paz Vega
Pedro - Guillermo Toledo
Paula - Natalia Verbeke
Rafa - Alberto San Juan
Pilar - Maria Esteve
Sagaz - Ramon Barea