Continuing to play his brand of exaggerated slapstick beyond all reason, Emir Kusturica manages to outdo the excesses of his previous pic, “Life Is a Miracle,” with “Promise Me This,” about a peasant lad who finds true love. The likeliest reason this film was included in the Palme d’Or lineup was as a nod during Cannes’ 60th birthday to the two-time Palme winner; it only serves to underline how far the helmer of “When Father Was Away on Business” has sunk. Kusturica’s tiny but loyal Euro base will hold up commercially, but prospects elsewhere are strictly limited to ancillary.
Even before credits are finished, thesps’ mugging and arch comic action are pushing the limit. Twelve-year-old Tsane (Uros Milovanovic) lives in a three-person village with his grandfather (Aleksandar Bercek) and neighboring teacher Bosa (Ljiljana Blagojevic), but there’s enough ruckus among them for an entire small city. Grandfather has rigged his home with Rube Goldberg devices, such as those that wake Tsane every morning (and which at one point hurtle Grandfather head-first through a window), but his big project is restoring the town chapel and its bell.
Feeling suddenly that he’s about to die, Grandfather makes Tsane promise he will sell his cow, buy an icon of St. Nicholas for the chapel and find a bride. Tsane obeys, but not after whiling away the time ogling Bosa’s breasts through Grandfather’s custom-made telescope.
Tsane ventures to town with the cow and quickly runs afoul of gangster Bajo (Miki Manojlovic) and his thugs, who are hatching plans to build a mockup of the World Trade Center in Serbia. Bajo’s gang steals the cow, but after an abrupt gunfight that defies credibility, the cow is rescued and sold. Tsane’s prospects look better when he eyes pretty high school girl Jasna (Marija Petronijevic), but Kusturica overplays Tsane’s bumbling and supposedly charming efforts to win her affections.
A pushy group from a government ministry bugs Bosa and Grandfather, one of a few side plots in an already overstuffed movie that include a plot to force Jasna into white slavery to pay off the debts of her mother (Kosanka Djekic), who has a kept her moonlighting profession a secret from her daughter.
When Jasna is captured, Tsane helps rescue her, leading to an endless confrontation with Bajo in Jasna’s home — extended by a finale back in Tsane’s village where a funeral ceremony, a wedding party (Grandfather tying the knot with Bosa) and an armed tank commandeered by Bajo come together for what’s apparently Kusturica’s idea of a Serbian civil war battle.
“Promise Me This” is undone by a desperation to be funny at all costs and for any kind of action — no matter how badly timed or ridiculous. It’s the same kind of hyperactive pratfall comedy that undid both “Black Cat, White Cat” and “Life Is a Miracle,” but he has drifted further and further away from his former taste for caustic political content. New pic is little more than a naive, picaresque adventure fantasy, told in the director’s insistently aggressive style.
While Milovanovic and Petronijevic provide the pic with its only recognizably human characters in budding lovers Tsane and Jasna, the pursuit of a 12-year-old boy for a mature young woman (along with his amply displayed French kissing and a sexual romp in the trunk of a car) is creepy. Thesps appear cast primarily for how ugly or goofy their faces appear onscreen, though Bercek registers a few lighter touches as the grandfather.
As always with Kusturica, technical categories are aces, topped by Milorad Glusica’s crisp lensing. Special effects include an annoying device involving a circus performer shot out of a cannon who’s sent flying through the air in flapping cape and outstretched arms a la Superman. Payoff of this lame device is a dud.