Movie review: 'Don’t Tempt Me'

1 1/2 stars (out of 4)

It's bad enough when a movie is convoluted. It's even worse when the labyrinthine plot is frequently talked out on screen, rather than shown taking place. But what makes a film like Spain's "Don't Tempt Me," about the battle for a boxer's soul, really deserve a spanking is its attitude. There's a smarmy "Get it?" vibe at work here, as if we're supposed to forgive its nonstop narrative trespasses because it's just having a bit of fun with Christianity.

Not cute.

Underneath all the plot twists, the story is about two otherworldly emissaries -- angel Lola (Victoria Abril) and hellion Carmen (Penelope Cruz) -- who are sent to earth to fight for the soul of Manny (Demian Bichir), a lug of a boxer whose mother has petitioned for his salvation.

In an ill-advised twist on the angel-vs.-devil scenario, Manny is so uninteresting as a pivotal character that he's a black hole who sucks away our investment in the film. Who really cares what becomes of him? To remedy this (or distract us from it), the film tries to raise its stakes by throwing in everything: workers' politics, crooked cops, corporate-style takeovers, double-crosses, lesbianism, spiritual-legal discussions.

Turns out the real reason this dullard's soul is so important is because heaven is running low on human resources. As its director of operations (Fanny Ardant) explains, the balance of good and evil is poised to tip in favor of hell, a place where some of the damned must wait tables and everyone speaks English.

The film's only redeeming move is the casting of classy, maternal Ardant as top angel, because the only reason to hope things turn out for the best is so she'll always have heaven -- or Paris, which is what heaven looks like: vintage, black-and-white, and night-clubby. Nice idea.

What I didn't get was how the two leads moved in so quickly with Manny, posing as his estranged wife and cousin. I also didn't get why Lola and Carmen must get jobs at a supermarket, where some of their obligatory one-upmanship takes place. Nor did I get what was supposed to be so adorable (or believable) about casting Cruz as a vaguely gay bad girl who reads lad mags, dances around to "Kung Fu Fighting" and cries over "Goodfellas."

The Tarantino-esque opening sequence, the Javier Bardem cameo, and the portrayal of hell's director (Gael Garcia Bernal of "Y Tu Mama Tambien") as having a Swiss passport -- those I got. They just weren't screamingly funny.

Voicing our gripes, at one point Abril's angel asks why so much energy must be expended on this boxer; surely there is someone else more compelling for her to save? But her boss Ardant brushes her off with an excuse about how sometimes even the smallest things make the biggest difference. Clearly, what the film can't explain, it conveniently cloaks in mystery.

Even worse, what the film doesn't show, the characters tell us about: the boxer's back story, hell's machinations, heaven's woes. There is a scene outside a spiritual courtroom during which Ardant and Bernal discuss the verdict on Manny. Why couldn't we have seen for ourselves? If the filmmakers wanted to talk so much, they should have just gotten together for a long, anecdote-filled, wine-soaked Spanish dinner party and amused themselves.

"Don't Tempt Me"
Written and directed by Agustin Diaz Yanes; photographed by Paco Femenia; edited by Jose Salcedo; production designed by Javier Fernandez; music by Bernardo Bonezzi; produced by Eduardo Cam Poy, Edmundo Gil, Gerardo Herrero. In Spanish, English, French and Latin, with English subtitles. A First Look Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 5. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: R (language, some violence and sexual content).
Lola Nevado -- Victoria Abril
Carmen Ramos -- Penelope Cruz
Manny -- Demian Bichir
Marina D'Angelo -- Fanny Ardant
Davenport -- Gael Garcia Bernal

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