What does a person do after they achieve their greatest ambition? This question rests near the heart of How to Be a Latin Lover, a film whose first five minutes portray the outline of a familiar story: a young child suffers a great tragedy, identifies a way out of impoverishment, works against all adversity to get there, and then lives happily, flabbily ever after.
From the gold-toned childhood memories, replete with a wish upon the stars and a darkly comedic gas explosion, to a macho poolside courtship, the dashing Maximo seeks love as a vehicle out from his rough upbringing living in the back of a car. Of course, “love” is not necessarily the right word; his primary motivation in marrying a supermarket magnate is the life of luxury that awaits him at her mansion, on the golf courses of her country club, and in the driver’s seat of the extravagant cars she buys him. This, despite his baby sister’s warnings: “You get what you work for, not what you wish for.”
The world Maximo (played Eugenio Derbez) navigates in Latin Lover is out-sized, even in the out-sized land of screwy comedy movies. This is a world where a 22-year-old Maximo is so gorgeous that the women around him are physically unable to repress their whistling, hooting, and hollering. A world in which a mother dies off-screen when an avocado tree falls on her, a chauffeur is named after his grandfather’s dog, and a ten-year-old concocts a plausible plan to launch a weather balloon into the stratosphere—and these are but a few random examples from the film’s first twenty minutes.
It would be easy for a script so tightly packed with largeness to veer into cheekiness and incredibility. And granted, Latin Lover contains these qualities in spades. But the nuanced efforts of the cast help keep the narrative grounded in, if not reality as we perceive it, the ridiculous cyclone of reality as these characters see it.
Rob Lowe appears as Maximo’s friend, a fellow pretty face with gold-digging dreams, and plays the twisted role-playing his own aging wife forces upon him with such earnestness that the situations are at once hilarious and painful. Kristen Bell brings humanity and charm to the archetypal “cat lady,” smiling as the count of bloody, band aid-covered scratches grows higher in each of her scenes. Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel are simultaneously menacing and amusing as two small-fry criminals looking to settle a debt.
Raphael Alejandro portrays the putzy, science-fair-focused Hugo, a role which might have been played for cuteness and cheekiness were it not for the young actor’s inherent air of sincerity. This is effectively aided by director Ken Marino’s framing of Hugo as the most realistic, humane character in the film. Foregoing the cliches of cute and funny children, the film presents a greatly dimensional vision of adolescence through the context of Hugo’s romantic travails and various heartbreaks.
The film’s greatest asset, though, is in the relationship between Maximo and his sister, Sara, in whom we are treated to Salma Hayek in a pitch-perfect performance. Derbez and Hayek carry every scene in which they appear together with chemistry so innate that one might be forgiven believing the pair have worked together their whole lives. Maximo and Sara are intensely likable characters, despite, especially in the case of Maximo, their shortcomings. Derbez looks at home as the film’s centerpiece, playing the aging lothario with a surprising amount of grace, while never sacrificing his comedic girt.
This gets at the core of what makes How to Be a Latin Lover tick: beneath the comedic sheen, there is a whole hell of a lot of heart. The script is a little too neatly packaged for its own good, and in the third act, it leans a little too far into formula. In the hands of less capable actors, the recurring bits might have felt clichéd, and the emotions sentimental.
Marino’s steady directorial hand keeps the band playing. He displays a fine instinct for volume control, knowing when to push the script’s more ridiculous components visually (like filling an entire bedroom with a weather balloon) versus when to bring the noise back down to a more humane level, such as the scenes in which Maximo begins to understand that, perhaps, there’s more to love than just money.
In a way, How to Be a Latin Lover is spiritually connected to the salsa music that underscores some of its funniest scenes. In each, the signatures of the genre are evident pretty much right away; those familiar with the standard movie comedy know the contours, can start to see what’s coming next in this film a few beats ahead of the rhythm, just as one knowledgeable in salsa can intuit the direction a song will take. The gags and plot points (and chord structures and melodies) are sometimes discernible from afar. But when the film’s expected flourishes land, they are played with highly skilled hands, ones which endow the moments with life and breath.