Eugeniuo Derbez in How to Be a Latin Lover

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER

Movies are endlessly surprising. Take How to Be a Latin Lover. In a sane world, I’d follow that with the Catskills-comedian punchline “Please” – although on the day I attended, others were clearly looking forward to it more than I was. The friendly ticket-counter employee told me how much she loved what I thought were pretty noxious previews for the comedy, and directed me to the auditorium with “Try not to laugh too hard!” (“No problem,” I silently replied.) The incessantly chatty patrons sitting behind me expressed excitement about the impending “pool scene,” which, again, looked astoundingly unamusing in the trailers. Then I saw the film. And damn it if this latest vehicle for Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez wasn’t a sweet, moderately clever outing boasting a peppy spirit, a bunch of inspired performers, and a fistful of truly riotous moments. I swear: Sometimes, this job makes no sense at all.

Latin Lover’s premise, I’ll admit, was kind of ticklish, given the rarity of inspirational tales about little boys whose sole dream is to be arm candy for fantastically rich dowagers. And the movie stays broadly funny when we first meet Derbez’s contentedly kept Maximo after 25 years with an elderly meal ticket (Renée Taylor), his unimaginable wealth and blasé entitlement seeming to ooze from Maximo’s well-fed gut. (Derbez can mug with the best/worst of them, but in these early scenes, he’s a stitch as a man too bored and lazy to even walk, let alone make goofy faces.) Yet after finding himself dumped in favor of the raw sexual charisma of a car dealer played by Michael Cera (!!!), the newly penniless Maximo is forced to stay with his estranged, angry sister Sara (Salma Hayek) and nerdy 10-year-old nephew Hugo (Raphael Alejandro) ... and that’s when when my tentative, limited hopes for the movie went directly south. Watch Maximo learn to be a sensitive brother to the sister he long ignored! Watch Maximo learn to be a role model to his friendless nephew! Watch Maximo learn that there are more important things in life than money! Watch ... . Oh, God. Do I really have to?

Raphael Alejandro and Eugenio Derbez in How to Be a Latin Lover

In the end, though, I was glad I did, partly because Derbez’s clueless ignoramus becomes an only slightly better version of the greedy, privileged egotist he is at the film’s start. But mostly it’s because director Ken Marino doesn’t appear to have any illusions about Latin Lover’s quality. Instead, he wisely populates the film with so many inventive comedic presences – many of them from his Children’s Hospital tenure – and loopy comic gambits that we’re left happily defenseless against its charms. Rob Lowe is a hoot as Maximo’s Caucasian, dyed-blond equivalent who’s exhausted by his endless servicing of Linda Lavin (a casting coup worthy of another “!!!”), and two additional Robs, Riggle and Huebel, make a delightful pair of questionable, squabbling entrepreneurs. Rob Corddry – yes, another Rob – shows up, as does Michaela Watkins, and Kristen Bell enacts a beaming, winning nincompoop with 50 cats and the scratch marks to prove it. Raquel Welch – her features taut but her game face intact – plays a septuagenarian hottie with prosthetic arms. I’m not sure further comment is necessary.

And while Hayek gives a truly lovely straight-woman performance, and young film novice Alejandro proves so natural and entertaining that he totally deserves his screen romance with Gifted’s gifted Mckenna Grace, Derbez completely earns this cinematic showcase (which, based on the weekend box-office, looks to be a significant crossover hit). The star’s scenes opposite Hayek, with both of them blessedly allowed to speak their native Spanish, feel unexpectedly truthful, and Derbez is a terrific comic mentor to Alejandro – although after Instructions Not Included, his Patch Adams role in Heaven Is for Real, and this, studios should really give the guy’s babysitting duties a momentary rest. But with Williams sadly gone, Carrey mostly MIA, and Sandler scuttled off to Netflix (praise the Lord!), it’s a pleasure to see Derbez currently picking up the slapstick-man-child mantle; even when his material here is wanting – and it frequently is – the comic’s brazen fearlessness tends to save the day. I’ll admit it: That aforementioned “pool scene” was pretty great. But so was Maximo’s verbal months-of-the-year duel with Corddry, and his makeshift cereal bowl, and his stuffed-animal tea party complete with juice boxes and string cheese. Oh, and Maximo’s stupidity and carelessness leading to an elderly man in a wheelchair getting hit by a car three times. That may seem like a cruel gag, but, you know ... three is funny. So, incredibly, is How to Be a Latin Lover.

Emma Watson in The Circle

THE CIRCLE

Writer/director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle was the single most-confused thing I saw all weekend, but only because, while watching the film, I didn’t have access to a mirror. What on Earth is this hopelessly wishy-washy movie trying to tell us? Based on a Dave Eggers novel, Ponsoldt’s adaptation finds Emma Watson working a vaguely defined customer-service job for the titular high-tech company and eventually becoming a human test balloon for SeeChange – a marble-sized camera and social-media outlet that records everyone’s whereabouts 24/7. (Well, almost 24/7, considering we’re told that Watson does get three un-viewable minutes for bathroom breaks. One rather hopes she keeps Ex-Lax handy, just in case.) Given Tom Hanks’ untrustworthy affability as the Circle’s founder, the satanically lit Patton Oswalt as its COO, and John Boyega lurking around like a 21st Century Deep Throat, you’d be right to presume that The Circle would emerge as a perils-of-technology thriller, with slow-on-the-uptake Watson learning that a Truman Show existence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Well, that’s kind of what happens. More accurately, through, it’s not. Ponsoldt appears so deeply conflicted about whether to chide The Circle’s tech-happy demographic for its tech-happy ways that what results is nothing so much as a 110-minute exercise in waffling. The movie is all for transparency – but only for bad guys. It’s all for a constant social-media presence – unless you want some privacy. It’s all for privacy – when it remembers to be. (At one point, Watson gets an ovation for her speech about how “access to all human experience is a basic human right,” a wildly arguable sentiment that neither the script nor direction treats with even a hint of a raised eyebrow.) Perhaps because Ponsoldt is so unsure of what messages he’s trying to convey, Hanks and Oswalt seem to have no idea how nefarious they’re supposed to be, and Watson – speaking in an inconsistent American accent – appears on even less-solid ground, with none of her acting choices falling outside the realm of “blandly empathetic ingénue.” (In his few scenes, the Boyhood boy Ellar Coltrane unfortunately suggests that he should’ve maybe been content with one-hit-wonder status.) Hard as it is to watch his character’s MS-related suffering, the late Bill Paxton, in his final film performance, is quite touching as Watson’s dad, with Glenne Headly (as her mom) and Karen Gillan (as her bestie) more moving than they should be given such underwritten roles. But Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour follow-up remains a spectacularly timid and unfocused mess, and even an occasional embarrassment, especially when the film stops dead in its tracks so we can marvel in The Circle’s outdoor get-together with musical guest Beck. This would be the perfect place for a “Loser” joke if anyone involved with The Circle, including those of us watching it, actually wound up winning.

Anne Hathaway in Colossal

COLOSSAL

Unlike The Circle, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s comedy/drama/something-else Colossal (currently playing at Iowa City’s FilmScene) clearly knows exactly what it wants to tell us, and your enjoyment of the movie will likely depend on your willingness to be told in the absolute loudest and least subtle of outside voices. A feature-length metaphor for the nightmare of addiction, Vigalondo’s odd, clever indie casts Anne Hathaway as an aging party girl whose alcohol-fueled self-destruction manifests itself as literal destruction in the form of a skyscraper-sized kaiju creature, one that runs amok in downtown Seoul every time the blotto Hathaway trudges through her childhood playground at 8:05 a.m. The best thing about the movie is that I’m not kidding. And neither is Colossal, which has the temerity to treat its thrillingly loco premise with the truthfulness and sincerity of a Charlie Kaufman tragicomedy, albeit one whose symbolism is routinely spelled out in big – really big – block letters. (ADDICTION IS DAMAGING! AND SCARY!! AND HURTS PEOPLE!!!)

Beyond the obvious, aggressive moralizing, the film has other flaws. Dan Stevens and Austin Stowell are stuck in confusing, incomplete roles, and one seemingly sympathetic figure is too-conveniently revealed to be a raging psychopath when a simple monster would’ve sufficed. But it feels churlish to complain too much when a movie, on a scene-by-scene basis, is this engaging – you’re dying to know how Vigalondo is going to make his many disparate puzzle pieces fit – and this well-acted by its leads. Hathaway, who has great eyes for the required popping here, is generally at her best when cast as a wreck, and Colossal proves she’s just as nimble, fearless, and bleakly funny when doing the wrecking. (At times, the film resembles Rachel Getting Married as directed by Roland Emmerich.) And Jason Sudeikis, in a biting break from the norm, employs his innate likability to devastatingly disquieting effect; he’s like a school of piranha disguised as a life jacket. Props, too, to Colossal’s expert sound effects, particularly when the kaiju bitch-slaps an equally gargantuan robot. The on-screen cheers may have sounded faraway, but in our auditorium the laughs to that muted response were deservedly louder than hell.