In the Hollywood hierarchy of stardom, Cantinflas, the beloved Mexican comic actor, was like a streaking comet — white-hot and short-lived. Though well established in his homeland, he was a relative unknown to most in this country when he burst on the scene, costarring with David Niven in 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Instead of staying and riding the tide of critical attention brought by the blockbuster, Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes, born in poverty in 1911, returned to Mexico to continue his remarkable career there. His character, dubbed Cantinflas and inspired by a drunken street cleaner he spotted outside a theater, first took shape on the 1930s tent-show circuit. Soon Cantinflas was starring in films.
FOR THE RECORD
On second references in this article, Cantinflas’ birth name, Fortino Mario Alfonso Moreno Reyes, is given as Reyes. It should be Moreno.
“Cantinflas” the movie tries to capture the magic of this much-loved legend, and it does so in fits and starts. Most of the credit goes to Óscar Jaenada in the title role, who does a remarkable job of bringing the legend to life. The actor is effortless in mirroring Cantinflas’ signature stream-of-consciousness patter, marked by the cleverest of wordplay, with a bite that slips up on you. Though more loose-limbed and lanky than Reyes, Jaenada is at ease with the physical comedy of the star, one reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, a Cantinflas fan.
It is clear that director Sebastian del Amo, who co-wrote the film with Edui Tijerina, has a deep affection for the man and the character. That radiates through the dialogue that twists and turns around the country’s social divides in ways that resonated with the working class and amused the country’s elite. It is there in the story of the self-made superstar, who never forgot his beginnings, championing rights of the working poor until his death in 1993.
Del Amo has a sure hand with his main subject. Whether seedy vaudeville shows with their Russian dancers, including Valentina Ivanova (Ilse Salas), who would steal Cantinflas’ heart and become his wife, or working the crowds at movie premieres, the scenes in Mexico carry a certain authenticity. The film is faithful in recording the highs and the lows of fame that at times threatened the star’s marriage to the love of his life. Salas’ very good turn as the woman who knew him when, struggling to find her own place in his success, helps ground not only Cantinflas but the film.
It is in crossing the border that “Cantinflas” blunders. Barely have the filmmakers touched down in Mexico before they shift to Hollywood — a constant back and forth that becomes increasingly distracting, in part because in Hollywood Cantinflas is there in name only.
Roughly half of the film is devoted to Michael Todd’s “Around the World” saga, following the still unproven movie producer as he attempts to get backing for the complicated project. With two stories to tell, it is perhaps not surprising that one suffers.
As Todd, the very good Michael Imperioli, still best known from his role as Tony’s wild nephew in “The Sopranos,” gets the short end of this deal. It doesn’t help that the world the filmmakers put him in is so insubstantial, with iconic Hollywood stars from Chaplin (Julian Sedgwick) to Elizabeth Taylor (Bárbara Mori) little more than walk-on shadows.
The milieu itself, so vibrant in the 1950s, is anemic. Rather than the high-stakes gambit it was, Todd’s fight to make “Around the World” plays out in tony restaurants like a series of silly quarrels between ill-suited dinner companions.
Hollywood looks paler still each time the movie returns to Cantinflas in Mexico, where Jaenada fills up the screen with the sheer delight of the character Reyes so carefully tended for a lifetime. It is unfortunate “Cantinflas” never stays long. You’re left with that empty feeling of a surface barely scratched, when the legend that was Cantinflas deserves much more.
MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements, language, smoking and some suggestive matter
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes; in Spanish and English with English subtitles
Playing: In select theaters