REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
The Mexican romantic comedy, “A La Mala” features the ongoing war between the sexes as the propelling narrative device.
The opening scene introduces the protagonist, Maria Laura Medina (Aislinn Derbez). Friends have contracted her first and middle names into, “Mala,” as in cruel.
Mala shows up at an upscale bar, clad in a provocative black dress. That the skimpy item is somehow holds together is a miracle of textile design. Completing the enticing image, Mala sashays her hips and swings her luxuriant tresses alluringly. Mala orders a drink, then bumps into a handsome man, spilling the booze all over his shirt. Ordinarily, the man might be upset by the clumsy collision. However, when he sees how attractive Mala is, his incipient anger immediately evaporates. Mala flirts with the man and he reciprocates. One thing leads to another and the man makes his move toward seduction. Busted! Mala is revealed to have been hired by a concerned client to test the man’s fidelity. He has flunked big time, showing himself to be a cheating cad.
We learn that this is what Mala does for a living. She vehemently disclaims that she is a prostitute. After all, she doesn’t sleep with any of her marks, only tempt them. Mala insists that she is a struggling actress, who is making ends meet between gigs. Besides, as Mala rationalizes, she is simply revealing the true nature of men. Mala insists that they are all a bunch of cheating slime balls. According to Mala, men can’t be trusted — the adultery is in their DNA.
The film flash backs to months before. It recounts how Mala got established in her unusual niche. Her roommate and best friend, Kika (Papile Aurora), harbors reservations about her boyfriend. Can he be trusted to be faithful? Kika has her doubts. How can she find out for sure?
Kika proposes that Mala test her boyfriend’s fidelity by feigning interest in him, then pretending to be accessible to his advances. Mala spurns Kika’s overtures. However, when Kika points out that Mala is behind in the rent, she eventually relents.
Predictably, when Mala goes into action, the boyfriend succumbs to the ploy. Kika is heartbroken, but grateful to Mala.
Mala had assumed that the entrapment was a one off assignment. However, Kika has a cousin, who is about to get married. The cousin has doubts about her fiancée. Kika implores Mala to reprise her scam. Again, Mala expresses her disinclination. Again, Kika reminds Mala how far behind Mala is on paying her share of the rent. Again, Mala successfully exposes a wayward male.
Word spreads and Mala soon has a steady stream of clients. It is a welcome infusion of cash since Mala encounters difficulty in landing gigs as an actress. The film shows why. When Mala auditions for roles in commercials, she proves to be a headache. During an audition for a tampon commercial, its director tries to inspire Mala to put on a happy face. Mala turns argumentative, insisting that it is implausible that a woman would be in a good mood during her menses. It is evocative of the classic scene from “Tootsie.” In it, Dustin Hoffman destroyed his career as an actor by arguing with a director of an underwear commercial about his character’s putative motivation.
Finally, Mala has a promising audition for a big role on a new television show. If she lands the part, it could turn her career around. Alas, there is a catch. The show’s female producer, Patricia (Daniela Schmidt), has recently been dumped by her boyfriend, Santiago (Mauricio Ochmann). In an effort to lure him back, she hatches a scheme. Patricia wants Mala to do her little routine, albeit with a twist. Mala won’t merely test Santiago, she will cause Santiago to fall in love with her. When he does, Mala will dump him and break his heart. In Patricia’s scenario, Patricia will swoop in and catch a dejected Santiago on the rebound.
However, Mala is surprised to find Santiago to be quite appealing. He is a good-looking, wealthy Tequila mogul. Moreover, he embodies admirable personal qualities. Santiago is even altruistically building a school to enable disadvantaged students to study music. Will the usually cynical Mala fall in love with the intended target of her sting? How will she reconcile these emotional stirrings with her with career objectives?
The excellent onscreen chemistry between Derbez and Ochman is authentic. In real life, the co-protagonists are a couple.
The screenplay for “A la Mala,” by Issa Lopez and Ari Rosen, intermittently devolves into being formulaic. The direction by Pedro Pablo Ibarra is capable. However, this film is eclipsed by his prior work, “Pulling Strings.” That vehicle boasted a vastly superior storyline and a surprising denouement.
The film is in Spanish with English subtitles. Those who are bilingual, may notice that some of the translations are clumsy. For instance, the subtitles repeatedly refer to car tires as having been “busted,” rather than “deflated.”
The film is a lighthearted, romantic romp. Despite its title, “A La Mala” is actually not so bad after all.
** 1/2 PG-13 (for some sexuality/nudity and language) 105 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.