Spain Check

Romantic comedy Spanish Fly sinks under weight of American neurosis

At the beginning of Spanish Fly, Zoe, the heroine, meets Antonio, who's both Spanish and fly. Zoe's an American writer staying in Madrid to research a book on machismo. Antonio, a blocked writer himself and a not-at-all-blocked womanizer, is her interpreter. They start bickering at once, so we know they're a match made in indie-movie heaven.

Spanish Fly was written and directed by the Canadian actress and filmmaker Daphna Kastner, veteran of Julia Has Two Lovers and Henry Jaglom's Eating and Venice/Venice; she also plays Zoe. Antonio is played by Toni Canto, a Spanish TV star who's currently appearing in the Pedro Almodóvar film All About My Mother.

Theoretically, Kastner's film is a romantic comedy about the attractions, repulsions and flat-out perils of macho men. The title refers, here, not to the apocryphal aphrodisiac but to the carnal buzz of the atmosphere in Madrid, where sexuality seems to spontaneously combust, often right out on the street. Most of the macho specimens that we, and Zoe, see early on are pretty resistible, however -- leering, overconfident sleazes. But Antonio is straight out of an American woman's daydream -- he's spectacularly handsome, but also intelligent and civilized and playful. He stirs Zoe up, so of course she spends most of the rest of the movie involved with every man she meets except him. Among these are a dreary ex-pat American intellectual (Martin Donovan) who runs an English-language bookstore; a flamenco guitarist (Antonio Castro) who's physically alluring but nothing more; and her visiting ex-boyfriend (Danny Huston), who's turned into a noxious men's-movement geek.

Macho made in heaven: Toni Canto and Daphna Kastner in Spanish Fly.
Macho made in heaven: Toni Canto and Daphna Kastner in Spanish Fly.

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Rated R.

None of this is necessarily improbable, nor is there anything very wrong with it as the setup for a romantic comedy. The trouble is that Spanish Fly, in execution, is neither very romantic nor very funny. It's not much of anything, really, except sort of depressing, because the focus isn't on the relationship, it's simply on uptight Zoe -- on her repressed passions, and even on a corny dark secret from her backstory. Poor, delicate little Zoe can't let herself get into the hot-blooded spirit of things, and the movie seems to be telling us that we should suffer for her rather than just laugh at her.

For a while, it looks like the film may even take a turn for the downright grim. When Zoe finally throws herself at the guitarist, it seems to be heading for an unsavory cautionary implication: that macho men make good fantasies, but in the long run an American gal's safer with a nice American wussy. But then there's Antonio, the macho but tender dreamboat, whose characterization implies that you can have it both ways after all. This is preferable to a downbeat resolution, granted, but it leaves Spanish Fly even more thematically muddled.

The dark, wary-looking Kastner has a certain frazzled exoticism, and Canto is really striking. Like Antonio Banderas, he could well take the Almodóvar Express to American popularity. A few other notable performers turn up. Marianne Sagebrecht of Bagdad Café has a bit as a hotel proprietress; Mary McDonnell provides the voice of Zoe's mother over the phone; and that astonishing Almodóvar fave Rossy de Palma has a funny cameo, apparently as herself.

The film is competently directed, it has some terrific Latin music, and in the last 20 minutes there are two sex scenes staged by Kastner with some imagination and humor. But it's too little, way too late. Spanish Fly goes all the way to beautiful Madrid to offer us one more portrait of an urban-intellectual American neurotic. This could have been a pretty good joke in itself, except that the writer-director-star doesn't seem to be in on it.

 
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