In the hands of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, GRINGO could’ve been a lovely, lively and ludicrous comedy. However, it’s in the hands of Nash Edgerton, and the product churned out is an unrelenting, joyless slog. Beleaguered by problematic pacing issues, scenarios that never snap together easily, and horrendously-drawn characters, this dark comedy is a placebo for what should be a rousing, raucous romp. It’s guaranteed to harsh your high.
Harold (David Oyelowo) is a mild-mannered middleman at a pharmaceutical company in Chicago. His commute is punishing. His interior designer wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) walks all over him, putting him in the poorhouse and making a cuckhold out of him. His back-stabbing bosses Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine (Charlize Theron) use Harold as a doormat and pawn in their corporate malfeasance. Fearing he’ll be laid off in a looming corporate merger, Harold panics whilst on a field trip to the company’s Mexico manufacturing plant. He hatches a kidnap and ransom plan involving a two local motel workers. But, as they say, the best laid plans often go awry.
A significant portion of the predictable situations and humor created by screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone, as executed by Edgerton (who brought us the very clever BEAR), crash land. You know you’re in big trouble when, two minutes in, the camera lingers for an awkwardly long time on Harold singing “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” in his car. The filmmakers all-too-frequently lose track of the characters physically, but also psychologically in these astoundingly convoluted set-ups. Unlike BURN AFTER READING, or even RUTHLESS PEOPLE (two films GRINGO should’ve been a close cousin to if the filmmakers felt like having any fun), there’s a master plan connecting all of these characters. Here, their big idea doesn’t play nearly as brilliantly since the characters’ drives are motivated by quirk for quirk sake. They trade in rote, poorly-expressed allegories about bears, gorillas, balls, carrots, bananas, Jesus and Judas. There’s even a “woke” story Harold tells about his uncle participating in the Nigerian Prince scam. None of this is particularly funny either. It’s a total drag. Though there’s a nice scene or two between Harold and doe-eyed drug mule Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), it ultimately adds up to nothing.
In addition, strange dichotomies arise within each of the detestable characters – internal conflicts that are both uninteresting and ring false. Richard’s humanitarian brother (Sharlto Copley), hired to rescue Harold, doubles as a mercenary. The Black Panther cartel kingpin is absolutely ruthless, yet he loves the endearing music of the Beatles. Elaine’s a cruel ball-buster, yet she cries in her car when she’s betrayed by a man she’s callously screwing. It’s not believable that a woman like this (one who keeps a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on her bookshelf, mind you) would ever cry, especially over a dude. Most of the heavy lifting from Theron’s performance is done by her wardrobe’s plunging necklines, chunky jewelry and lipstick-stained glassware. She’s barely one-dimensional. Same goes for Bonnie, who’s a punching bag for the fists of the filmmakers’ male toxicity. They take great pains to mock her formerly fat status and paint her as a villain. Sure, they attempt to give her depth during her Skyped confession with Harold, really pumping up the sad sack score in the background, but it’s botched. These two-bit traits don’t make for interesting characters. Plus, from the Mexican factory supervisor with lots of kids, to the fact that the lion-share of Latinos shown are drug-dealers, there are racist stereotypes interwoven throughout.
If that’s not enough, the plot doesn’t gel cohesively. Nothing matches up. It’s a movie where befuddling, maddening things occur. You’d think certain characters with vested interests would combine forces (like Harold and the kingpin collaborating to ruin Harold’s horrible bosses), but no. Then you’ll get mad that you’re not seeing the better story you made up on the spot. Logistical problems abound in the third act, but by then, you won’t care if it does or doesn’t make sense. You just want the film to end. Period.
GRINGO opens on March 9.