“Museo” is a fun, stylish, singular heist flick that’s about so much more than the theft itself. Anchored by a superb lead turn by Gael García Bernal as the slacker mastermind (mini-mind might be more apt) of a two-man museum burglary, director Alonso Ruizpalacios (2014’s “Güeros”), working off a script he wrote with Manuel Alcalá, has crafted an often brash, inventive piece that’s as visually compelling as it is thematically resonant.
Inspired by infamous true-life events (the film winkingly calls itself “a replica of the original”), the 1985-set, heavily fictionalized “Museo” finds Juan (García Bernal) and narrator Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris), old friends in their late 30s, both still living with their parents in the affluent Mexico City suburb of Ciudad Satélite as they drag their way through veterinary school.
More out of personal stasis than financial need, they unite on a surprisingly workable plan to break into their capital city’s National Museum of Anthropology in the wee hours of Christmas and steal a national-treasure trove of pre-Columbian relics, including the jade death mask of ancient Mayan King Pakal and a uniquely shaped Aztec obsidian vase.
Our hapless, if fleetingly lucky crooks are aided in their mission by distracted security guards and an apparent absence of surveillance cameras. (It is, after all, still the era of music cassettes and pay phones.)
However, what Juan and the more circumspect Wilson will then do to unload their priceless booty is another story, one that sends them in several far-flung directions and hurtling toward a dead end that offers perhaps only one way out — a solution that will prove risky, clever and nerve-racking.
“Museo” is marked by a number of extended set pieces and segues that give the film an amusing, shaggy-dog quality mixed with “Pulp Fiction”-like bravura (as well as a somewhat overlong running time). These include an annoying (for Juan) family Christmas gathering, an ill-conceived Acapulco meeting with a wealthy British art dealer (Simon Russell Beale), a feverish visit to a dubious nightclub featuring a belly-dancing porn actress (Leticia Brédice) and, of course, the tense, masterfully shot museum heist itself (re-created on elaborate studio sets, though the actual museum was used elsewhere as well).
But it’s a late-breaking scene of deep emotion and painful candor between Juan and his judgmental doctor-father (Alfredo Castro) and more compassionate mother (Lisa Owen) that’s ultimately one of the film’s best, affording García Bernal some of his strongest moments here.
At the heart of this unpredictable tale, which beats with an odd sense of cultural pride and dignity, lies the prevailing theory that many museum artifacts were stolen, plundered or otherwise ill-gotten ages before they ever made their way into the hands of upscale collectors and display cases. It’s a fitting paradox that’s not lost on “Museo” — or its confident creators.
In Spanish and English with English subtitles
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena