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Rudo y Cursi reunites Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, the Mexican actors who became art-household names after Alfonso Cuarón’s steamy 2001 film, Y Tu Mamá También. That movie mixed coming-of-age and road-trip tropes with explicit sexuality. This time, Alfonso’s brother, writer-director Carlos Cuarón, pits the pair as stepbrothers working out their one-upmanship issues within the confines of a sports flick.
In the battle of the real-life brothers involved, Alfonso’s the clear winner, having delivered a film that was both hot and fresh and introduced the world to a couple of South of the Border hunks. Carlos’ try feels slight by comparison, but Rudo y Cursi is breezy enough—and the boys are still pretty enough—to make his feature debut a relatively amusing diversion.
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Luna and Bernal play Beto and Tato, plantation workers and amateur soccer players who get a chance at the big time when they’re noticed by a scout named Batuta (Guillermo Francella). Batuta may as well have been called Slicky McSlickerson instead; with his constant glad-handing and promises of the moon, you don’t trust the guy for one second while he’s sweet-talking the brothers into letting only one of them land in the pro leagues.
Tato, constantly warbling, initially thinks Batuta is a music exec who can help him achieve a singing career. So when he discovers the truth and Beto asks him to throw Batuta’s impromptu contest—a penalty kick—to decide which brother he’s going to help, Tato agrees. And then botches the fix. Immediately, he’s packed off to Mexico City while Beto fumes back home.
Batuta soon has an opportunity to bring Beto to the professional level, too, and the film is essentially about how the brothers handle their newfound fame and wealth—and also the problems that those two devil-or-angel gifts can bring. Their playing styles earn them the titular nicknames: Beto is Rudo (“tough”) while Tato is Cursi (“corny”). The handles apply off the field as well: Beto gets increasingly hotheaded and deeper in debt as he discovers drugs and indulges his gambling addiction. And Tato—rather hilariously—indulges his passion, too, finding some crazy music pros who let him record a Spanish version of “I Want You to Want Me,” accompanied by a cheesy video.
Rudo y Cursi, despite the script’s intended focus on its characters’ personal dramas, inevitably turns to the sports-movie cliché of a big, climactic head-to-header. For what it’s worth, Cuarón wrings maximum tension out of the setup, letting it unfold in nearly real time. But it’s still exactly where you expect a sports flick to take you—and not nearly as far as Luna and Bernal have proven they can go.