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Fate is up in smoke

In 'Nicotina,' chaos intersects flawed yet star-crossed lives in a Mexican heist.

August 20, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

How dark is "Nicotina"? According to producer Martha Sosa, it's "the darkest, darkest part of the cigarette." But the cool, stylish Mexican heist-gone-wrong comedy is darker than that and even more hazardous to its characters' health.

Occasionally using split screens and other buttons on the Avid editor to modish, generally unobtrusive effect, the movie follows four sets of characters whose destinies get tangled during the course of an uncomplicated criminal transaction. The action transpires (more or less) in real time over an hour and a half in Mexico City one night. Lolo (Diego Luna), a blinkered computer hacker, has agreed to provide his friend Nene (Lucas Crespi) and Nene's older partner Tomson (Jesus Ochoa) with access to a series of Swiss bank accounts, whereupon Nene and Tomson will hand off the accounts to a pair of Russian mobsters in exchange for a stash of diamonds.

Lolo, however, is nursing a mad crush on his neighbor, Andrea (Marta Belaustegui), and he has tricked out her place with a mind-boggling amount of surveillance equipment. Not only does Lolo watch Andrea's every move, he backs up her every move on disk and labels it. Andrea, an ambitious Spanish cellist plotting her triumphant return to a major European symphony orchestra, is a virtuoso of manipulation. She's playing her conductor, her other neighbor, several members of the brass and string sections, and, of course, Lolo like so many large violins. Naturally, she is too self-centered to be aware of Lolo's spying.

His timing is filthy. Lolo downloads the bank information onto a disk without incident, but soon afterward Andrea gets wind of his peeping and flies into a rage, setting off a series of escalating calamities that eventually involve the edgy pharmacist Beto (Daniel Gimenez Cacho); his fed-up wife, Clara (Carmen Madrid); an easygoing barber, Goyo (Rafael Inclan) and his shrewish wife, Carmen (Rosa Maria Bianchi).

Like "Amores Perros" and "Pulp Fiction," to which screenwriter Martin Salinas looked for inspiration, "Nicotina" takes the view that chance and timing are equal to will and intent. Some things are causal, some things are fated, everything, in the end, is random. In an American movie, a Weltanschauung as chaotic as this normally comes with a heaping side of nihilism and a bunch of sneering, sweaty unredeemable types, but "Nicotina" neither condemns nor exalts its characters. Instead, it takes the picaresque view that given the opportunity, people will act in their own self-interest. Those who don't may be dumb or scared, but they're certainly not pure.

Lolo, a surly, lonely cyber-serf with a tendency to blink excessively and mumble nonsensically when he gets excited, is probably the most objectionable of all the characters, yet he's also the most endearing. Bianchi and Inclan are exceptional as a disappointed middle-aged couple barely getting by as barbershop owners. Inclan's Goyo radiates the slightly surprised sadness of a man who might have been content with life if the person by his side didn't remind him how bad it is every five minutes. Bianchi's Carmen is a curdled dreamer who spends too much money on cigarettes and evening classes -- she's taken courses in tourism, computers and sushi-- with no results. When a big, fat opportunity walks through the door of the barbershop, she jumps on it, and it leads to the film's most outrageously gruesome scene.

Clara and Beto, who run the pharmacy down the street, are about 10 years Carmen and Goyo's juniors and their mirror image. Beto is trying to quit smoking, and it's giving him the perfect excuse to be as mean and controlling as he no doubt is anyway. The dreamy Clara puts up with it by checking out emotionally, until the handsome and mysterious Nene walks in to buy a pack of her favorite brand.

The scenes between Nene and Tomson are the most underdeveloped, as perhaps befit an afterthought. Nene, a young Argentine (his name literally means "kid") clearly playing John Travolta to his partner Tomson's Samuel L. Jackson, uses up all the silence on the way to the delivery calculating lung cancer to hit-by-a-truck ratios. Tomson, who is Mexican and is old enough to be his father, tries to school Nene in the ways of the world and his adoptive country. (Now doesn't necessarily mean right now.) But the smoking-as-metaphor device takes over a bit too neatly, until almost all communication between the partners is swaddled in unnecessary symbolic layers. (Besides, the logic is flawed -- fate and free will are not mutually exclusive. All the smoking in the world won't prevent death by Mack truck.)

Still, for a movie in which almost everybody smokes, lives with a smoker or is trying to quit, "Nicotina" is refreshingly free of noxious additives. There are no added morals here, no squeaky-clean heroes or Hollywood fundamentalism. Cosmic justice is swift and merciless, but it's neither high-minded nor didactic. In fact, it may not even be justice at all, just coincidence.

"Nicotina's" every loser, criminal, dreamer, crank and cynic is flawed, but their flaws are primal and as human as thumbs. In the end, it's this grim but tender view of humanity that gives the movie its appealing combination of mordant humor and cheerful pessimism.

*

'Nicotina'

MPAA rating: R for violence and language.

Times guidelines: Violence, gore, lots of smoking.

Diego Luna...Lolo

Rafael Inclan...Goyo

Daniel Gimenez Cacho...Beto

Jesus Ochoa...Tomson

Lucas Crespi...Nene

A Cacerola Films/Altavista Films/Videocine production, released by Arenas Entertainment. Director Hugo Rodriguez. Producers Laura Imperiale, Martha Sosa. Executive producers Monica Lozano, Laura Imperiale, Federico Gonzalez Compean, Eckehardt Von Damm. Screenplay Martin Salinas. Director of photography Marcello Iaccarino. Editor Alberto de Toro. Costume designer Alejandra Dorantes. Music Fernando Corona. Art director Sandra Cabriada. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

In general release.

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