Some critics have been extravagant in their praise for Alfonso Curaon’s “Y Tu Mama Tambien”–a curious reaction given the fact that basically it’s the sort of coming-of-age adolescent sex romp that the same commentators regularly dismiss in the all-too-frequent Hollywood incarnations. True, there’s an underlying tone of melancholy in this case–the film is part “Summer of ‘42” as well as part “Porky’s,” especially toward the close–but that doesn’t alter its essential character. The picture still deserves a translation like the colloquial “And So’s Your Mama” rather than the statelier “And Your Mama, Too.” That’s hardly a compliment.
Curaon’s film centers on two hormonally-besieged Mexican teens, wealthy Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his best buddy, the relatively impoverished Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), who spend their hazy summer days recalling their (mostly imaginary) sexual conquests and engaging in masturbation contests after their girlfriends, whom they have been bedding regularly, go off on a European vacation. At a wedding party the duo meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu), the lovely wife of Tenoch’s snobby older cousin, and in their lascivious bravado invite her to accompany them to an (also imaginary) beach they call Heaven’s Mouth. To their drooling surprise she soon takes them up on the offer (she’s just abandoned her unfaithful husband), and the trio is presently tooling their way through the dusty landscape on their way to the promised paradise. The guys dream of getting together with Luisa, but in the event each gets far more than he bargained for, and their horny camaraderie is brutally tested in the process; the woman, meanwhile, acts as the catalyst for their maturation while keeping a secret that will color the mood of the denouement. The travelers do in fact find the hypothetical beach that was the goal of their road trip; it’s a virtual Eden, but turns out to have dark undercurrents–symbolized by a herd of roving pigs that befoul the place–that involve the necessity of the boys’ facing impulses they’re unwilling to admit and Luisa’s taking leave of them.
Much of “Mama” is quite coarse and titillating–you could well feel like referring to it as “Mexican Pie”–but the mood is far grittier, and the sex scenes much more graphic, explicit and extended, than anything found in Hollywood’s high school smarm-fests. (Indeed, the episodes of intercourse actually have a soft-core porn feel to them.) That fact, in addition to the effort to give the raunchy goings-on a serious aftertaste, probably explains the critical tendency to treat the picture more generously than it deserves. (The same was true of the ecstatic reaction to Truffaut’s supremely overpraised relationship comedy-drama, “Jules and Jim,” forty years ago.) The “artistic” pretensions of the enterprise are reinforced by the periodic intrusions of an omniscient narrator, intoning his pronouncements with surpassing archness, who explains, comments on and sometimes digresses about the occurrences we’re witnessing on screen. That’s a device that’s growing increasingly frequent (and tiresome–see also “Burnt Money”), and the only instance in which it’s worked at all well is when it was employed for humorous effect (see “Amelie”); that happens only rarely in this case (a disquisition on the fate of the rampaging pigs is a case in point).
One has to admire the picture’s leads for their willingness to do everything that Cuaron asks of them–some of which must have been acutely embarrassing–and, to be sure, all three have moments of genuine power and insight. The director’s skill in capturing the extremes of Mexican life–from grinding police oppression and poverty to ostentatious wealth and power–is sometimes impressive, too. But the attempt to meld the rawness of teen sex farce with political commentary, coming-of-age didacticism and a kind of magic realism ultimately feels forced and not a little unsavory. If “Y Tu Mama Tambien” were an English-language picture, it’s doubtful it would be received with the accolades being showered upon it. The mere fact that it’s in Spanish doesn’t really make it any better.