Seven friends sit around a table for dinner and to a dangerous game. Every smartphone is front and center and whatever data comes in throughout the evening is for public consumption. Such is the premise of the upcoming Mexican film “Perfect Strangers” (“Perfectos Desconocidos”), by Manolo Caro (of Netflix’s “House of the Flowers”). But while its central idea is promising and its plot thick, seen unadorned, the film is a mostly familiar retelling of mostly familiar topics. The foibles of the upper middle class, infidelity, growing pains in raising teenagers, the isolating effects of technology. The end result is an entertaining, fast-paced adult drama that yields more amusement than the profundity the story aspires to.
“Perfect Strangers” is, actually, another remake of an Italian movie of the same name, by director Paolo Genovese. The film is grounded on a hypothetical with universal appeal and ability to instill fear: what disasters could befall our interpersonal relationships if all secrets our little black phone boxes hold are revealed? The story has been retold i
n various countries and languages, and this Mexican remake, which just premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, is coming to the U.S. this weekend.
At the center of the dramedy is Eva, played by Cecilia Suarez, who also stars in Caro’s Netflix soap opera. She is a malcontent psychologist with a rocky relationship with both her husband and daughter. Her ennui fuels her desire to spice things up a little at dinner. The hapless (and somewhat dimwitted) victims of her idea for diversion include her own husband Antonio (Bruno Bichir, from “Narcos”), two other couples (one featuring “The Magnificent Seven’s” Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a seventh friend, Pepe, whose date does not show up at the last minute.
Caro’s adaptation of “Perfectos Desconocidos” is unfailingly faithful to the original—qualities, flaws, and all. The versatile roles that an ensemble of talented actors must portray shine through. Suarez is devilish as the imp at the heart of the problem. Bichir grounds the group as it begins to spin out of emotional control with a sincere and moving fatherly moment. The actor who plays Pepe, Franky Martin, is heartbreaking as the odd man out, saddled by a burdensome secret. Caro’s adaptation of the script maintains its fast-paced style that keeps you ping-ponging across the dinner table. It is, essentially, a stage play, brought successfully to the silver screen thanks to punchy, realistic dialogue and quick transitions. You will salivate for an appetizer, main course, and dessert, and still be hungry for more.
But the central appeal of the film is its quirky premise—to make you wonder what would happen if your cellphone was completely accessible to others—and that device, examined closely, proves too much as well as too little. First, few from today’s audiences would dispute that technology has overtaken our lives and that we trust too much to that addictive device. The aim is to convince us that we are hooked and dependent. But the movie is preaching to the not-listening choir.
Second, much of the story’s dramatic tension is wholly untethered from the central anchor. Anyone reading the basic outline of the plot can immediately guess that the juiciest secrets will be potential bouts of marital infidelity. But, to avoid collapsing into just that topic (and to fill feature-length runtime) “Perfect Strangers” adds in tinier dramas. A previously-unknown plan for cosmetic surgery shocks the group and creates tension. A revealed limitation on the group’s upcoming vacation stokes resentment. And so on. These little problems—unlikely to stay beneath the surface among a group of true friends regardless of cellphone use—need not the movie’s central trick to be revealed. This is straightforward and very light old-fashioned adult drama masquerading as phone Russian roulette.
Finally, the entire set up is prone to healthy skepticism. It is as unlikely that people would accede to the nihilistic endeavor at the heart of the film as they would to directly expose their peccadilloes themselves. The film theorizes that everyone has something to hide and that their cellphones hold the key. Perhaps that is so but, if that is the case, few would dare cast suspicions on others who refused to play. It is only if you buy a hidden assumption—that men are inherently cheaters and women inherently possessive and suspicious—that the plot device will perhaps convince you.
Nevertheless, once you move past the theoretical flaws with its setup, “Perfect Strangers” is perfectly satisfying. The infidelity delinquencies you know to expect from the get-go do show up. One troubled character goes to such length to a sin as to create greater confusion, resentment, and anger. The backfiring plan quickly spirals out of control. Morbid instincts kick in and the train wreck among confidantes who thought they knew each other is entrancing to watch.
Caro’s adaptation distinguishes itself in one key way from the parade of its predecessors. It provides an incisive take on the Mexican upper-middle class. The friends around the dinner table are proudly progressive and open to honesty on matters of sex, love, and marriage. They do not shy away from discussing excess, and toast in self-congratulation their acceptance of divorce and their understanding of the challenges of monogamy. By contrast, Mexico’s pervasive “machismo” generates a confounding double-standard regarding homosexuality. A slew of phobic invective rears its ugly head—perhaps realistically so—in the final act. The jury is out on whether American audiences will fully grasp—let alone react well to—these tidbits of Mexican culture. But, it is refreshing and humorous to see on the screen regardless.
Like the original script that spawned it, “Perfect Strangers” sets up lofty ambitions. To be a cautionary tale about how we guard our secrets. Searchingly to probe of the challenges of married life and of the breakdown in friendships and relationships. To scold those who treat their spouses poorly.
But, both because of the very premise that launches it and because of the film’s ultimate resolution, the movie hits none of these targets. Instead, it achieves something that is perhaps better. It is, likely, more welcome by most of its target audience in any event: a voyeuristic imagination of just how bad things could get around the dinner table for a group callous enough to let it go there. Its delectable dinner with delectable theater. If the best meals are homemade then, this film proves, the best dinner dramas are as well.
“Perfect Strangers” is distributed by Lionsgate and hits theaters Jan. 11, 2019
Be sure to check out “Perfect Strangers” this weekend and let us know your thoughts in the comments!