Sitting through Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed is not unlike taking a well-timed siesta. The Spanish, Beatles-era road movie is comforting and pleasant enough, but you also come away feeling a little woozy, as you struggle to piece together the story details that begin to vanish the moment you exit the theater. The sun-dappled vistas seduce, but they also make you a little light-headed.
If you’re a Spanish-speaking fan of the Fab Four, however, you’ve hit the motherlode. We begin in Albacete circa 1966, where Antonio San Román (Talk to Her‘s Javier Cámara) practices a rather unorthodox method of teaching English to his students: by reciting and analyzing Beatles songs. The whole country’s abuzz with news that John Lennon, in the midst of an existential crisis that has him considering walking away from the iconic group, is shooting Richard Lester’s How I Won the War in the Andalusian seaside city of Almería. How could Antonio pass up the opportunity to have a chat with his idol?
The follicly challenged prof hits the road in his dad’s unreliable but rather cute green jalopy. Early on his trek, he crosses paths with Belén (Natalia de Molina), 20 years old and knocked up. She’s pretty much had it with the sadistic nun that runs the convent where her mom shipped her off to have her baby – an early scene shows Mother Superior bitch-slapping a young mother who’s been separated from her child – so she’s hitchhiking her way back home. Shortly after Antonio offers her a ride, they come across mop-topped Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), compelled to take a time-out from his dictatorial cop pop (Belle Epoque‘s Jorge Sanz, not aging gracefully) bitch-slapped him after he ordered the 16-year-old to get a haircut and the defiant teen put his foot down. (There’s a lot of bitch-slapping in this movie, if you haven’t noticed.)
Three’s company for writer-director David Trueba, who spends roughly the film’s first 40 minutes getting viewers to become acquainted with his three leads. He’s in no hurry for Antonio, Belén and Juanjo to arrive at their destination, and once they get there, Trueba divides the screen time between chronicling the way the characters bond with each other with Antonio’s hapless efforts to get through the heavy security surrounding Lennon. If this all sounds awfully featherweight, you’re not far off the mark, but Trueba (Madrid, 1987), a capable storyteller, imbues the narrative with a gently observed melancholy – call it intelligent nostalgia – which lends more resonance to this fact-based tale. (Antonio is the fictional counterpart of schoolteacher Juan Carrión Gañán, who also taught his pupils English through Beatles songs.)
What’s notably absent from this feel-good dramedy is some of the edge of Trueba’s previous work. The film feels like recess between assignments for the award-winning filmmaker, a softball of a movie that ambles along amiably, letting charming anecdotes, not just from Antonio, but also from supporting characters, do the heavy lifting (Kudos to Ramon Fontserè for adding some much-needed grit and authenticity as the grizzled Catalan owner of a divey bar that plays an important role plotwise.) From a thematic perspective, Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed, whose title comes from a lyric in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” serves as a companion piece to Robert Zemeckis’ 1978 Beatles-fan romp I Wanna Hold Your Hand, though that film’s scrappy energy is almost the polar opposite of Trueba’s approach.
Trueba coaxes ingratiating performances from his young actors, but this is Cámara’s showcase, and he rises to the challenge. Even when Trueba’s screenplay reduces Antonio to a gushing fanboy – which is rather limiting, if you ask me – the beady-eyed thespian delivers a layered, lived-in performance that make you forget his broader work in Pedro Almodóvar movies. He deservedly won acting honors at the Goya Awards earlier this year. The film swept up rather nicely as well, taking five more statues, including Best Picture … to which I say, let’s not get so carried away, Academia members. Granted, the film works on another level for a Spanish audience. Trueba is aware of the political realities simmering under the lush scenery that vividly captures the time period, and to his credit, he prevents the repression of Franco’s regime to take over the movie. I just wish the finished product didn’t feel so consistently tame.
There is no doubt that Belén intends to go through with her pregnancy in Trueba’s film. In 1960s Spain, any mention of the “a” word would probably get you in serious trouble. The Amerindie comedy Obvious Child, which is also opening in South Florida this week, could not be farther removed from such a puritanical Catholic guilt trip. In budding stand-up comedian Donna Stern, Belén finds a (considerably more neurotic, equally independent-minded) present-day kindred spirit.
Adapted from the short film Written, Obvious Child follows Donna as life takes a dump on her, a notion underlined by the abundance of flatulence and poop jokes. To be fair, though, most of the humor in writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s New York City-set sweet/tart script comes from relationship baggage, and what Donna endures in the course of the film’s brief running time certainly gives her plenty of cannon fodder for her act.
What sets the story in motion happens in that most unceremonious dumping location: a comedy club’s bathroom. It seems Donna’s shlubby b/f has been ready to give her the heave-ho for quite some time, leading to a rather self-consciously twee montage of her ever so cutely having a tizzy in her bedroom. The next day, Donna’s day-job boss at “Unoppressive, Non-imperialist Bargain Books” tells her he’s shuttering the quirky bookstore. Still unsure about what to do in the aftermath of the one-two career/love life punch, Donna meets preppy, squeaky-clean Max (Jake Lacy), whose looks and mannerisms suggest a three-way between Matt Damon, Stephen Moyer and Jason Sudeikis.
When a night of causal sex leads to the dreaded plus sign on her home pregnancy kit, Obvious Child takes an intriguing detour from the wacky laughs and actually treats the afterschool-special subject matter with maturity and empathy. Even when the movie veers dangerously close to becoming a PSA for Planned Parenthood, the relatively unvarnished matter-of-fact way it deals with Donna’s decision keeps the humor tethered to the real world, despite the cutesy story beats. It also helps that Robespierre has cast dependable character actors Richard Kind and Polly Draper as Donna’s divorced parents. Their scenes with Slate always ring true.
A movie as reliant on Slate’s comedic chops as Obvious Child is lives or dies by its stand-up sequences, and Slate is so disarming in her stream-of-consciousness, this-just-popped-into-my-head routine that, goshdarnit, she won me over. Obvious Child still could have used a sturdier, less threadbare narrative, but if it often feels like you’re watching the pilot for a new femme-driven sitcom, it comes across as a show you would definitely like to program on your DVR. Its simplicity is quite becoming.
Obvious Child opens June 27 at area theaters. That same day, Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed kicks off an exclusive run at Coral Gables Art Cinema with a red carpet premiere, Trueba and Cámara are expected to attend.