LOS ANGELES - "Rudo y Cursi" is enormously hackneyed in concept yet surprisingly enjoyable in execution, thanks to some amusing, surreal details and the genuine camaraderie of Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal.
You think you know where it's going, this story about the rise and fall of a couple of aspiring soccer players (who happen to be competitive brothers, another familiar theme).
But the naturalism of writer-director Carlos Cuaron's approach is too compelling, as is, conversely, the liveliness of co-stars Luna and Garcia Bernal, longtime friends reunited for the first time on the big screen since the 2002 hit "Y Tu Mama Tambien."
Cuaron, who co-wrote that movie, makes his feature debut here; it's also the first film from brother Alfonso Cuaron and fellow Mexican directors Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo del Toro through their new company, Cha Cha Cha. So it's all very comfortable and chummy.
Alfonso Cuaron has said that the relationship between the main characters isn't necessarily a reflection of his own childhood with his younger brother, but Carlos Cuaron has a clear affection for the way these guys tease, torment and ultimately stick by each other.
Beto (Luna) and Tato (Garcia Bernal) work on a banana plantation and spend their free time playing soccer on the neighborhood team in Jalisco.
They barely make enough money to get by, which is even tougher for Beto, who has a wife and two young kids as well as a serious gambling problem. Tato, meanwhile, wants to move to Texas and become a singer.
Beto is the serious one, Tato is the dreamer.
Both of their lives change when traveling talent scout Batuta (Guillermo Francella) notices their skills on the field and offers to take them under his wing - trouble is, he can only take one at a time. (We probably could have done without Batuta's frequent narration, which is heavy on the soccer-as-life metaphors.)
Tato gets to go first and, after adjusting to life in Mexico City with its luxuries like Cup O'Noodles (with freeze-dried shrimp!), he eventually comes off the bench and becomes a star on his team, even earning the nickname "Cursi," or corny, for his passionate style of play. (He also finagles a recording contract out of Batuta, which includes a fabulously cheesy video for his Spanish cover of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me").
Beto eventually joins him and ends up on a different team; as a goalie back home, he'd already gone by the nickname "Rudo," or tough, which follows him to the big time.
While it may seem obvious which brother is responsible and which is the flake, both Rudo and Cursi are equally flawed, one of the film's realistic charms.
Both indulge in their newfound fame but through differing methods: Rudo with even higher-stakes betting and eventually cocaine, Cursi with expensive tastes and a sexy, scheming TV-star girlfriend (the leggy Jessica Mas).
Even the climactic Rudo vs. Cursi showdown - which is de rigeuer for any sports movie - doesn't exactly turn out the way you might expect.
Then again, "Rudo y Cursi" isn't really a sports movie; in retrospect, Cuaron doesn't depict that much soccer. Rather, it's about relationships, and how they're imperfect, but how they can also evolve and thrive. *