A friend’s gotta do what he’s gotta do
By Julio Nakamurakare
New comedy El misterio de la felicidad sets out to find the key to happiness
The premise behind Daniel Burman’s new outing El misterio de la felicidad — at least as advertised on the movie poster — ought to be challenging and self-questioning, but instead it turns out as rather unimaginative, even illogical. “Would you fall in love with your friend’s wife?” Does “falling in love” depend on volition? That is, does falling in love with somebody require determination? I’d say it just happens, it’s fate, or any name you give love.
El misterio de la felicidad’s story is simple, very simple, but it doesn’t focus on whether or not you would allow yourself to leave ethical and moral considerations aside and give in to the “sinful yet gratifying” process of accepting the vagaries of love.
Truth is, El misterio de la felicidad — both the movie and the whole concept — is all about freedom. Freedom to choose. And freedom to choose, contrary to an involuntary instance like falling in love, is probably one of the keys to achieving true happiness.
For clarity’s sake, let us pretend, for a moment, that this is a children’s game. Kid A and Kid B are inseparable friends. One of them has a girlfriend. The other one doesn’t. Kid A disappears for unknown reasons, but remains engaged to his girlfriend. Kid B and Kid A’s girlfriend set out to find the missing boy. In the rather lengthy process of finding out where, when or why Kid A has vanished, Kid B and Kid A’s girlfriend find out that they (the searchers) actually like each other very much. So much, indeed, that they decide that Kid A was simply looking for freedom, and that they (Kid B and Kid A’s girlfriend) have the right to choose freedom themselves.
This is what El misterio de la felicidad boils down to: humankind’s numbness, which normally, in bourgeois life at least, passes itself off as domestic bliss, as the capacity to wake up to endless possibilities. Actually, what most people in this type of situation wake up to is the sound of the alarm clock going off signalling that it’s time to jump out of bed, take a quick shower, breakfast on the go if you’re lucky, and down on that office chair for another endless eight-hour shift.
Take or leave a few boring details, this is the kind of existence bosom friends Santiago (Guillermo Francella) and Eugenio (Fabián Arenillas) have settled for. But, fitting the kids’ analogy, Eugenio, who is married to Laura (Inés Estévez), seems to be perfectly happy, and Santiago makes do with sporadic sex escapades. No explanation is given as to why he should be so secretive about this, save for the fact that he and one of his lovers like to play make-believe. You see, Santiago and Eugenio run a home appliances store, a partnership meant to last forever, like their friendship, like Eugenio’s marriage to Laura. Perhaps Santiago only maintains furtive relationships because he feels he owes his married friend some kind of loyalty, and thus his “celibacy” is a sign of respect for his friend.
Nothing is forever, though. The business may be flourishing, the marriage may be sailing tranquil waters, Santiago may be content with his self-imposed bachelorhood, but just like a snap, like the infamous “Honey, I’m off for some cigarettes, be back in no time” runaway story, Eugenio vanishes without a trace. And for no reason, apparently.
If it sounds like you’ve seen or heard this one before, it’s because you probably have, so schematic the story of Eugenio’s unexplainable disappearance is, as is Santiago’s and Laura’s frantic search for him. This is not the sole reason for Santiago and Laura to spend time together. At the time of Eugenio’s disappearance, he and his business partner were busily fighting off a takeover attempt from a rival company. Eugenio gone, Laura is bent on selling her husband’s share, while Santiago (a more conservative man who clings to everything, including beautiful memories from the past) would rather stick to his. Laura, heavily medicated for psychiatric reasons, gets suddenly off the stuff and decides to check out the business’ finances, closely monitored by Santiago through a partition wall window.
In the process of examining Eugenio’s credit card bills and other personal data that may lead to his whereabouts, Santiago and Laura discover that the affable, self-effacing man had one or two secrets to hide from wife and business associate. Nothing quite reprehensible, though — a massage parlour session, a few fancy dinners paid for with a corporate card Laura knew nothing about.
El misterio de la felicidad (Santiago’s and Laura’s quest) is laid out as a rom-com thriller with a simple message, so transparent and palpable that they fail to see it. But viewers do. They see it coming from a mile. Still, El misterio de la felicidad is a mildly enjoyable ride, provided you go for stultified acting (Estévez’s) and a performance that needs fine-tuning to avoid stereotype (Francella).
Writer-director Daniel Burman, he of the Messiah trilogy fame, has gone for comedy before (La suerte en tus manos / All In, 2011), an overlong take on denial and final acceptance of true love. If La suerte en tus manos was not quite accomplished it was probably on account of its over-explanation of what was self-evident. Strangely enough, this would have probably been the case with El misterio de la felicidad, were it not for an insightful editing job that did away with detail and circumstance for the sake of simplicity. Less is more? You got it.
If El misterio de la felicidad is an improvement on La suerte en tus manos, it’s presumably because somebody decided to weed out all unnecessary accoutrement. But this alone does not suffice to render El misterio de la felicidad an all-out, clever attempt to put together an ingenious, effective comedy with a dramatic edge.
Even if the film was, indeed, trimmed down for a smooth cinematic ride, El misterio de la felicidad is still short of the comedic thrill you’d rightly expect from a seasoned writer-producer-director like Burman and and a versatile actor like Francella, when properly coached.
El misterio de la felicidad. Argentina / Brazil, 2013. Written by: Daniel Burman, Sergio Dubcovsky. Directed by: Daniel Burman. With: Guillermo Francella, Inés Estévez, Alejandro Awada, Sergio Boris, Fabián Arenillas, Silvina Escudero. Distributed by: Buenavista. NR. Running time: 92 minutes.