August 28, 2006

All Too Human

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To provide a description of Only Human one simply needs to say that it is a mix of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Meet the Parents en Español. However, Only Human manages to be fresh enough that it remains an enjoyable film in the meet-my-in-laws comedy genre that has been incredibly overused since Robert DeNiro threatened to take Ben Stiller “down to Chinatown.”

The plot is relatively simple. Favorite daughter Leni Dali (Marián Aguilera) brings her serious boyfriend Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) to meet her family. The only problem is that the Dalis are Jews and Rafi is Palestinian. Fortunately, husband-wife writers/directors of Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri don’t leave us with such a simple plot conflict. Instead the religious differences are really just another problem that is added on to the pile when dinner is eventually served at the Dalis’ house.

Leni’s family is composed of a delightful mix of discord. Her sister, Tania (María Botto), is a sex-addicted belly dancer who seems to have little to no concern for raising her hyperactive, six year-old daughter Paula (Alba Molinero). Leni’s younger brother, David (Fernando Ramallo) is desperately searching for a purpose in life after high school and seems to have recently found it in very strict observance of his religion. An increasingly senile and blind grandfather (Max Berliner) walks around the house with a loaded rifle from his days long ago in the Israeli war for independence.

The eclectic clan is presided over by increasingly harried matriarch Gloria (Norma Aleandro). It seems that the only reason she has not yet had a mental breakdown is that she hasn’t had enough time.

Rafi’s religion is only the start of a series of mishaps that will befall him and his soon-to-be family. In an attempt to help out with dinner, he drops a Tupperware container full of frozen soup out the window, hitting a man who may or may not be Leni’s father, Ernesto (Mario Martín).

Only Human’s original Spanish title is Seres Queridos which translates more directly to something like “Being Loved.” This original title fits more appropriately to the general theme of the film; deep down behind the eccentric characteristics of each member of the Dali family, there is a deep, loving care for the well-being of the family. Unlike other mismatched fiancée comedy plots, the family members in Only Human don’t seem to be nagging each other solely for comedic effect; instead, they are at each other’s throats because of genuine concern for their loved ones. Fortunately for us, this heavy dose of “concern” is incredibly funny.

Even though many of the jokes are simply lowbrow slapstick, belly laughs were commonplace throughout the theater. A certain uncomfortable bathroom situation with Rafi and the blind grandfather was a particular audience favorite.

A huge credit of the film’s effectiveness goes to Aleandro in her portrayal of Gloria. Aleandro, who is (in a very general generalization) to Argentina what Dame Judy Dench is to Britain, uses her great acting skill once more. Half the comedy in Only Human is based on the silent but razor-sharp facial reactions of Gloria to the other characters (particularly in response to Rafi’s many slip-ups).

Toledo in his role as Rafi is certainly no slouch. He uses the same comedic skills that were put to such effective use in the unfortunately overlooked but brilliant Àlex de la Iglesia film, El Crimen Pefecto (The Perfect Crime) from 2004. The audience feels a natural pity for Rafi, but Toledo avoids making his character too one-sided.

If Only Human has any cinematic pitfalls, it is only the fact that it lacks that special, unintended spark to make it magical. The film is in no way bad, but it is equally in no way memorable. Still, a movie’s main purpose is to entertain and Only Human succeeds greatly in this category. While I wouldn’t wait for this film to enter the canon of great cinema, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, especially for a good date.