Mexican comedy You're Killing Me Susana is already drumming up interest and press in the United States as a "romantic comedy," a frustratingly shallow description of this complex film. While Gael García Bernal and Verónica Echegui shine as an alternately combative and loving couple and provide the right balance of romantic chemistry, humor and conflict, 27 Dresses it's not. You're Killing Me Susana is a more compelling and engrossing study of a marriage on the rocks, the search for individual identity, race relations between the U.S. and Mexico, and toxic masculinity. It's beyond any Katherine Heigl vehicle.
Bernal plays Eligio, an actor playing bit parts in daytime soap operas to pay the bills and support his writer wife, Susana (Echegui). While he takes his role as provider seriously, Eligio consistently disappoints Susana with his philandering, late-night drinking and partying. Then, one morning, he wakes to find Susana gone. After a monthlong search—all the while assuring friends and family that his marriage is still "great, never been happier"—he discovers that Susana has gone to Middlebrook University in Iowa for a prestigious writer's program. Eligio books it to the Hawkeye state to bring her home, but what he thought was going to be a simple reunion to recover his wife turns out to be a sobering look at the reality of his marriage; for Susana, it's a struggle to assert her independence and be seen as an equal to her husband.
Fresh off the success of his critically acclaimed Amazon series Mozart In the Jungle, Bernal is extraordinary here, amply diving into Eligio's archetypal macho Mexican male like a hand in glove. He makes this role his own by imbuing the quintessential charm and likeability that made him a heartthrob in Michel Gondry's 2006 film The Science of Sleep. Even when he's at his worst, you still can't totally hate him.
Echegui is equally amazing as the meditative Susana, who is revealed to be a talented and visionary writer. While her character is deep and headstrong, she suffers from Eligio's abuse and neglect, at times to an unrealistic degree. It's almost as if screenwriters Luis Cámara and Roberto Sneider (who also directed) don't want to allow Susana to assert herself fully, to the detriment of the final product. Compromising Susana of power ultimately compromises the film's power.
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You're Killing Me Susana is based on Mexican author José Agustín's novel Deserted Cities; as in the book, the desolate location where Susana and Eligio settle their marital strife is a metaphor for their relationship in general. Time and time again, Susana deserts Eligio when she's had enough of him, leaving him in the cold winter snow of foreign middle America. The film's rough, non-steady camera work and toned-down color palette additionally drive home the point of the couple's tension-riddled relationship, thanks to cinematographer Antonio Calvache, who has worked on such dramas as Little Children, In the Bedroom and The Words.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's plenty of comedy in this film, as well as some relevant commentary on the U.S.-Mexico divide. Eligio's easygoing manner is repeatedly tested by white Americans: at first in a scene in which he's being grilled by TSA agents who think he's smuggling drugs (well, he is carrying thousands of dollars in cash in his duffel bag), then by a native Iowan who says Mexican food is "dirty." Eligio casually deflects the insult, retorting, "Well, American food is so bland. Sometimes you need a little salmonella in your food for extra flavor!" Touché.
You're Killing Me Susana may not perfectly align with any definable cinematic genre, but formulaic films are best left to Hollywood. Here, Sneider strives for a more soulful and gritty—albeit imperfect—love story. Whether or not the specificities of problematic Mexican machismo would resonate to a global audience doesn't matter; the film's main themes will. And Bernal and Echegui's performances are so undeniably magnetic, it's hard to not fall in love with them, too.
You're Killing Me Susana was directed by Roberto Sneider; written by Luis Cámara and Roberto Sneider, based on the novel by José Agustín; and stars Gael García Bernal and Verónica Echegui. Opens Feb. 24.