Best known for his gruesome, over-the-top slapstick horror, Spanish writer-director Álex de la Iglesia (The Last Circus, 800 Bullets) drops the grue and amps up the comedy with his best film yet, the wicked showbiz satire My Big Night.
Set on a soundstage crowded with entertainers and extras during the taping of a New Year's Eve TV special, Iglesia's riotous film is crammed with comedic chaos. There are vicious celebrity rivalries, backstage sexual trysts, blackmail, a murder plot, and even a heart-melting romance.
Riotous, indeed: The film also includes an actual riot at the studio gates by an unholy combination of fans ("They bused in a group of Dutch tourists," a producer says in horror) and a gang of striking union employees out to get anyone who crosses their picket line.
And that's not even counting the lavish production numbers featuring half-naked dancers in gold lamé outfits, vainglorious aging crooners, hip-thrusting boy banders, and rabbit- and dove-packing magicians.
Iglesia, 50, has always worn his influences on his sleeve. Luis Buñuel and David Lynch figure large in his horror movies, which revel in the perverse and the grotesque. He channeled Alejandro Jodorowsky, the grand master of psychedelic filmmaking, for his 2013 surrealist masterpiece Witching & Bitching.
My Big Night bears the stamp of Pedro Almodóvar's romantic comedies, and it's worthy of his best. Iglesia's most mature and least violent film, it's an absurdist love letter to all the faults and foibles that make us human. It shows how our ambitions, compulsions, vanities, and addictions stem from a fundamental desire to be loved.
That doesn't mean it's entirely devoid of Iglesia's unique brand of violent spectacle. Shot largely from the vantage point of the fake audience - paid extras dressed in formal wear - the film opens with the death of a tuxedo-wearing extra who is crushed by a large camera crane. It's a cartoonish moment made all the more absurd when the crane falls on the guy a second time just as he's about be rescued.
That's when the story's central character steps in. A lonely single man pushing 40, José (Pepón Nieto) is desperate for TV parts, so he comes running to replace the dead man. He forms an instant connection with one of his tablemates, Paloma (Blanca Suárez), a gorgeous, sexy, clever woman who dances like a pro.
They find out quickly that they both have a fetish for scars - and they've both been in so many accidents that they have many to show each other.
But theirs is a dangerous affair: Paloma is as lonely and desperate as José because she's cursed. Whenever she gets close to anyone, they're injured or killed in freakish accidents. (Thus, the film's opening scene.)
José and Paloma's wacky love story forms the heart and soul of the picture. Iglesia's frenetic camera may explore every weird event backstage, it may weave its way through the dancers' kicking legs and rest atop the dressing room of a drug-addled rocker. But it always returns to the lovers.
And to the question we're all asking: Will José survive the night?
My Big Night
Directed by Álex de la Iglesia. With Pepón Nieto, Blanca Suárez, Raphael, and Mario Casas. Distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated (nudity, sexuality, drug use, profanity, smoking).
Playing at: PFS at the Roxy.