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MOVIE REVIEW

Vacation paradise? More like hell

Set in Acapulco, 'Drama/Mex' has flashy style but puppetlike characters and unconvincing stories.

August 17, 2007|Sam Adams | Special to The Times

Set in what one of its characters dubs "Crapapulco," Gerardo Naranjo's "Drama/Mex" inverts the image of the city as a vacationer's paradise. Stocked with teenage hookers and thieving salarymen, petty thugs and poor rich girls and shot on Super 16-millimeter stock of variable haziness, the movie is like a tourist brochure left out in the rain. There's sex on the beach, but only after one of its participants has been beaten to a pulp.

Mimicking (at least, that's the polite way to put it) the prismatic storytelling of his countrymen Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga ("21 Grams," "Babel"), Naranjo interweaves two stories, to little apparent effect. In one, Jaime, a distraught businessman (Fernando Bercerril) steals money from work, quits his family, and checks into a seedy beachside cabana, planning to end his life. There, he meets Tigrillo (Miriana Moro), a sullen 13-year-old looking to turn her first trick, perhaps as much out of boredom as necessity.

Meanwhile, Fernanda (Diana Garcia), the estranged daughter of a hotel magnate, gives the brush-off to her lowlife ex-boyfriend Chano (Emilio Valdés), who promptly breaks into her house and begins to rape her. Begins, that is, until she apparently consents.

The problem with Fernanda's sudden capitulation isn't so much the suggestion that her screams of protest amount to little more than foreplay but that Naranjo feels no need to explain her abrupt reversal. Like the rest of the characters in "Drama/Mex," she is a puppet on a string, jerked about whenever the movie needs a lift. At least Naranjo has good taste in faces. The contours of Bercerril's worn-out visage suggest sorrows the movie never begins to explore.

With its swooping, unsteady camerawork and jarring ultra-close-ups, "Drama/Mex" styles itself as cinéma vérité. But the movie's fatal weakness for melodrama sinks any pretense at realism. In effect, Naranjo takes the worst of both worlds: the shapelessness of vérité without its unforced truth, the contrivance of melodrama without its heightened emotions. It's like watching a soap opera through the wrong end of a telescope.

Skipping from one story to another and scrambling their relative chronologies, "Drama/Mex" presents a flashy package, but that only reveals the paucity of its ideas. Naranjo is hardly alone in trying to pass off structural gimmicks as genuine complexity, but when the misdirection ends, he has nothing to pull out of his hat.

"Drama/Mex." Unrated. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time; 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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