What kind of movie could you expect from an Argentine filmmaker who lives in New York City, directs episodes of TV's "Law and Order," and whose favorite picture of all time is "It's a Wonderful Life"? Maybe something offbeat but not necessarily something as good as Juan Jose Campanella's "Son of the Bride," which is set in contemporary Buenos Aires and revolves around the problems of a successful restaurateur whose world is falling apart. "Son of the Bride" was the sleeper hit among March's five nominees for the foreign language Oscar. Watching it, you'll see why.
Movies about male midlife crises don't usually arouse my sympathies, especially if the guy concerned is well-paid, has a beautiful girlfriend, a stimulating job and a cell phone that never stops, as is the case with Rafael Belvedere (Ricardo Darin), the hero of "Son." But Campanella's movie is an exception to the self-pitying schmaltz Hollywood might have made from this idea. It's fresh, funny, biting, fast-paced and reasonably perceptive about people and their problems. It's the kind of movie many Hollywood people wish they could have made, which is probably why the Oscar voters liked it so much.
The film also taps a vein of forced comedy - Rafael's goofy, jealous movie-actor buddy Juan Carlos, overplayed by Eduardo Blanco - and another of obvious sentimentality: Campanella gives Rafael an elderly mother with Alzheimer's disease and a guilt-stricken father who wants to give his failing wife the grand church wedding they never had in their youth (hence the title "Son of the Bride").
Campanella, however, doesn't fall into any corny traps. His main models are Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and the great American directors of the 1970s - and perhaps the Vincente Minnelli who made the 1950 "Father of the Bride." Campanella handles the story with such grace, humor and feeling (and has such a terrific cast) that his film doesn't seem to miss a trick.
The elderly couple, Nino and Norma Belvedere, are played by Hector Alterio and Norma Aleandro, the stars of Argentina's last Oscar winner, "The Official Story," and they give their roles a sense of history, an unforced tenderness and seeming telepathy that instantly suggests a couple who've spent years together, who have each other in their bones. That's not always an easy thing to convey, especially given the illness that has destroyed Norma's memory. But when she looks at Nino and joyously exclaims, "My boyfriend!" it's the kind of frisson only a great actress could bring off.
It's also more genuine than cynical filmgoers might want to believe: Campanella's mother has Alzheimer's, and he says he took all of Norma's scenes and lines from real life.
As Rafael, Darin is as wonderful here as he was in a very different role, the older con artist Marcos in another recent Argentine import, "Nine Queens." I like Darin better in "Queens," where he plays Marcos with street smarts and a shivery sureness of touch that suggests a great noir actor. But Rafael is the more complex part, more open and vulnerable and he plays it with the same perfect pitch, razor-keen timing and flair for comic desperation he gave "Queens."
There's a casual expertise here that suggests Campanella deserves quick graduation from "Law and Order" to the American big screen, perhaps with the remake the studios will almost certainly try to make from "Son of the Bride." But maybe, unlike Rafael, he'll avoid crises, wait and more wisely choose his next change of job.
3 1/2 stars
"Son of the Bride"
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella; written by Fernando Castets, Campanella; photographed by Daniel Shulman; edited by Camilo Antolini; art direction by Mercedes Alfonsin; music by Angel Illaramendi; additional music by Ivan Wyszograd; produced by Adrian Sur, Fernando Blanco, Pablo Bossi. Jorge Estrada Mora, Gerardo Herrero, Mariela Besuievsky. Spanish, subtitled. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, May 31. Running time: 2:04. MPAA rating: R (language). Rafael Belvedere - Ricardo Darin
Nino Belvedere - Hector Alterio
Juan Carlos - Eduardo Blanco
Naty - Natalia Verbeke
Vicky - Gimena Nobile Sandra - Claudia Fontan
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times