A solidly built gag machine that aims only to entertain.

A solidly built gag machine that aims only to entertain, “The Friend Zone” bids for lowbrow laughs, and mostly brings them home. Though there’s nothing remotely new in this knockabout tale of a lovelorn teen struggling to woo the girl of his dreams, first-timer Borja Cobeaga’s ability to find a new spin for old wheels — and an immensely likable central perf — set the pic apart from the Spanish comedy pack. The fact that our luckless hero seeks love rather than just sex gives “Friend” a broad family appeal that, despite multiple local references, could give it legs beyond the Spanish zone.

Gawky, geeky Chema (Gorka Otxoa) has just split from Elisa (Barbara Santa Cruz) and now heads out every night with buddy Ruben (Julian Lopez) in search of a replacement. He lives with his mother, Gloria (Kiti Manver) and the elderly Senora Begona (Maria Asquerino). Uncle Jaime (Oscar Ladoire, aces), who carries a candle for Gloria and is an older but none-the-wiser Chema, is a regular visitor.

Throwing out the trash one night, Chema meets lively Argentinian beauty Claudia (Sabrina Garciarena). A wannabe hairstylist, Claudia needs someone to practice on, so Chema happily submits to having his hair done in the manner of Enrique Bunbury, the Spanish singer he most hates. The Chema-Claudia relationship provides one comic setpiece after another — a secret birthday celebration for Chema is the comic highpoint — in this well-played farce.

Importantly, the pic contains not a single moment that could even remotely be called offensive, and some of the clever dialogue is authentically witty.

Claudia sees Chema only as the friend he doesn’t want to be — indeed, being called her “friend” is enough to plunge him into depression. (Pic’s title is a reference to the zone where Chema doesn’t want to be.)

The attempts of the indefatigably romantic Uncle Jaime to get together with Gloria provide a nice parallel plot, and Jaime comically dispenses advice about love he’s unable to follow himself.

Both Otxoa and Garciarena pull off successful balancing acts that bring some nuance to things: Otxoa, with his hangdog expression, never seems merely pathetic; and Garciarena, via a delightfully lively perf, never loses viewer sympathy despite treating Chema appallingly.

Spanish title translates as “the guy who gets the Fantas,” while his better-looking friend gets the girl. Decent production values are better than those of most Spanish debut comedies.

The Friend Zone

Spain

Production

A Manga Films release of a Telespan 2000, Antena 3 Films, Sayaka Producciones Audiovisuales production, in collaboration with Canal Plus, ETB. (International sales: Telespan 2000, Madrid.) Produced by Tomas Cimadevilla, Mercedes Gamero. Executive producers, Maria Angulo, Tedy Villalba, Nahikar Ipina. Directed by Borja Cobeaga. Screenplay, Cobeaga, Diego San Jose.

Crew

Camera (color), Alfonso Postigo; editor, Raul de Torres; music, Aranzazu Calleja; art director, Arri y Biaffra; sound (Dolby Digital), Agustin Peinado. Reviewed at Malaga Film Festival (competing), April 24, 2009. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Gorka Otxoa, Sabrina Garciarena, Julian Lopez, Oscar Ladoire, Kiti Manver, Maria Asquerino, Michel Brown, Barbara Santa Cruz.
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