Imagine a ’30s screwball comedy played to a sensuous Brazilian beat and you’re ready for “Bossa Nova,” a delightfully amusing romantic roundelay. Working with his actress wife Amy Irving for the first time since the heavily dramatic “Carried Away” (1996), director Bruno Barreto makes nary a misstep as he nimbly juggles some half-dozen interconnected plotlines, all of which involve affairs of the heart. Set for a May U.S. release by Sony Pictures Classics, the appealing pic has crossover potential to attract both arthouse cognoscenti and megaplex habitues.
Irving plays Mary Ann Simpson, a fortysomething American widow who teaches English in Rio de Janeiro. It’s two years after the death of her husband — an airline pilot she met while working as a stewardess — and Mary Ann has more or less written off her chances for a second-chance romance. One of her private pupils, the starry-eyed Nadine (Drica Moraes), claims to have found Mr. Right in an Internet chat room. But Mary Ann insists that if and when she finds love again, she wants a real-life experience, not an online fantasy.
Mary Ann gets a bit of reality and magic when she captures the eye of Pedro Paulo (vet Brazilian leading man Antonio Fagundes), a suave attorney who’s going through a difficult transition period after wife Tania (Debra Bloch) leaves him for a tai chi instructor. After fortuitously sharing an elevator with the lovely widow, Pedro Paulo plots to meet her by signing up for one of her English classes, even though he’s already quite proficient in the “foreign” language.
Champion soccer player Acacio (Alexandre Borges), another of Mary Ann’s pupils, is eager to master English before signing with a U.K. team. (One of the pic’s funniest bits involves his being coached in profane “trash talk.”) Acacio, who never met a woman he didn’t like, makes a game attempt to become his teacher’s pet, and even brags to a wary Pedro Paulo that he’s enjoying some hot and heavy extracurricular activities with Mary Ann.
But the impulsive soccer star quickly redirects his amorous ambitions when he meets Sharon (Giovanna Antonelli), Pedro Paulo’s smart and sexy young law clerk. The extremely ambitious Sharon responds to Acacio’s come-on — even though she’s been flirting with Roberto (Pedro Cardoso), Pedro Paulo’s half-brother.
Additional complications arise as Juan (Alberto de Mendoza), Roberto and Pedro Paulo’s much-married father, tries to save his decades-old tailoring business from his latest ex-wife, while Tania — who’s having serious second thoughts about her breakup with Pedro Paulo — helps Nadine plan a trip to New York to meet her virtual sweetheart.
Working from a novel by Sergio Sant’Anna, screenwriters Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young have crafted a first-rate blueprint for the sort of screwball frolic that Howard Hawks used to make. “Bossa Nova” builds to a madcap climax in and around a hospital emergency room, where mixed signals and mistaken identities exacerbate the comedic confusion. Later, after a briefly serious sequence of fond farewells and wistful melancholy, everything ends at a Rio airport, where just about everybody gets what they deserve.
Barreto strikes the perfect balance of breakneck farce and deep romantic yearning, occasionally pausing for a bit of character-revealing fantasy. (At one point, Pedro Paulo imagines himself as a courtly Fred Astaire to Mary Ann’s captivated Ginger Rogers.)
Pic is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, the popular bossa nova composer whose dreamy-sexy songs pepper the soundtrack, and the late, great Francois Truffaut, who likely would have approved of the humanely humorous romantic entanglements.
Like the best Truffaut pics, “Bossa Nova” evidences a generosity of spirit that extends even to secondary characters.
Acting is aces across the board. Irving is effectively and winningly restrained as a lonely woman who refuses to acknowledge her loneliness until she spots a cure for it, while Fagundes impresses as a smooth-moving sophisticate who struggles to maintain his dignity while being frazzled by professional and romantic upheavals.
Among the supporting players, Antonelli is a standout for fearlessly refusing to soften the hard edges of her mercenary character, and Stephen Tobolowsky portrays Nadine’s Internet sweetheart as a surprisingly ingratiating fellow who fully deserves to get the girl of his dreams.
On a tech level, “Bossa Nova” is an appropriately slick package that will doubtless inspire many moviegoers to consider vacationing in Rio. Expect the tune-filled soundtrack — including Sting’s perfect-pitch rendition of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” — to generate plentiful CD sales.