Prenuptual Aggrievement

'Meet the Parents' goes Middle East in 'Only Human'

Farce is an ideal clearing ground for hostility. Like mystery, it's a genre that typically passes through disruption en route to the restoration of order, albeit with greater likelihood of an airborne pie. It makes sense, then, that every irresolvable conflict will eventually get the version of Meet the Parents it deserves—one that wraps a bright pink ribbon of family and closure around a box of broken glass.

For Jews and Palestinians, that movie is Only Human, a Spanish farce so redolent of dinner theater you can practically hear the silverware clanking. This intermittently hilarious contraption by the husband-and-wife team of Dominic Harari and Teresa De Pelegri heaves the tensions of the Gaza Strip onto a prop-room table already heaped with loaded guns, impromptu sex toys, and a brick of frozen soup that doubles as a sandbag for unlucky pedestrians below.

The main, and most fruitful, setting is a crowded Barcelona apartment—the compound of the Dali family, whose rooms exist as a series of interlocked battlegrounds. Their first scene, in the communal bathroom, sets the tone of domestic peace: Brother David (Fernando Ramallo) barges in on naked sister Tania (Maria Botto), who sends him screaming with a faceful of aerosol spray. A wounded duck paddles in the toilet, for reasons that are better not to ask: In this kind of clockwork farce, every stray prop or oddity registers like the gleaming cutlery in a slasher movie.

The dominoes start toppling when Leni (Marián Aguilera) brings Palestinian professor Rafi (Guillermo Toledo) home to meet her fractious Jewish family without warning them of his ethnicity. At first, all goes well, sort of: Tania's sullen little girl (Alba Molinero) accepts his proffered gift—a toy cactus that inexplicably chirps "You Are My Sunshine"—while blind grandpa Dudu (Max Berliner), a veteran of Mideast combat, manages not to blast him with his ancient rifle. (An audible ping! might as well accompany these items as they're introduced.)

But the uneasy peace starts crumbling as soon as Rafi and Leni tell her mom, Gloria (Norma Aleandro), a compulsive worrier who's picked the right time to start antidepressants. She is not swayed by Leni's argument that they love each other. "So did Romeo and Juliet!" she snaps. Leni retorts that the star-crossed lovers lived in the Middle Ages. "This is the Middle Ages," Gloria moans. That's before Rafi, attempting to be helpful, pitches the cement block of frozen soup intended for dinner out the high-rise window—where it lands with the ominous thud of an anvil hitting flesh.

As Rafi's attempt to cover up one disaster leads to something worse, you can see all the farcical machinery snapping into place—a process that can become deadly if the direction is smack-on-the-head obvious. But the directors wisely employ a handheld camera that de-emphasizes the staginess of the material. The jittery camera conveys just enough immediate chaos to distract from the Wile E. Coyote whirligig under construction in plain view, and cinematographer Danny Cohen does a neat job of whisking the actors from one gag to the next—as when Rafi makes a split-second toreador parry of Dudu blithely carrying a kitchen knife.

By setting the movie in Barcelona, the filmmakers have picked a no-man's-land where the blood-feud Mideast tensions can play out harmlessly. As long as the action is confined to the apartment, the movie turns Rafi's dinner from hell into a tense parody of itchy-triggered border hostilities: The cramped rooms become an occupied settlement, as Rafi retreats from dining room to bathroom without escaping the skeptical glare of his would-be mother-in-law. But once the family decides to go searching for their missing dad—who for some reason hasn't returned home (ping!)—the movie finally stretches its complications past the snapping point, turning silly and obvious. A romantic crisis hastily contrived to separate the lovers smacks of resolution panic.

But even then the filmmakers' crackling dialogue and swift pace don't desert them. Nor do their expert actors. Leading man Toledo proved his chops as a farceur in another underrated Spanish comedy, Alex de la Iglesia's pitch-black El Crimen Ferpecto: Here he delivers a virtuoso display of gradually deepening embarrassment, greeting each new calamity like a man trying to patch a fire hose with Curads. He's ideally matched with Aleandro, the actress best known for the Argentinean drama The Official Story. Anyone who remembers her despairing turn in that film will be shocked by her comic aplomb: Her befuddled mom has a priceless suspicious deadpan to meet Rafi's every fresh humiliation. It's been a long time since a movie got this much comic mileage out of the devalued reaction shot. As a parting jape, the filmmakers seal their bid for Mideast peace with the transgressive punch line from Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot. If Joe E. Brown can sail off to wedded bliss with Jack Lemmon, Only Human suggests, a Jew and a Palestinian should have it easy.

 
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