With the huge exception of Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” attempts by top Spanish helmers to go English-lingo have been artistic let-downs, and Manuel Gomez Pereira’s three tenors comedy “Off-Key” is no exception. Following several successful comedies and a taut thriller (“Between the Legs,” 1999), pic is below par for a director and team who have repeatedly shown themselves capable of combining slickness, wit and intelligence. This time around, there’s only slickness.
Pic’s strong cast and $8.5 million budget – making it one of the Spanish industry’s costliest, though much of the coin went to performers – do not redeem a project that must have looked sharp on the page but falls flat off it. Unashamedly conceived as a crowd-pleaser and backed by strong marketing, pic has presold well in standard Spanish territories. At home it opened disappointingly in early November.
Inspiration is the well-documented squabbling and ego trips of the Pavarotti/Domingo/Carreras roadshow. Insecure Italian Fabrizio Bernini (Danny Aiello), haughty Frenchman Armand Dupres (George Hamilton) and Spanish chancer Ricardo Palacios (Joe Mantegna) are a world-renowned trio of tenors.
Unknown to the other two, Palacios signs a deal committing them to perform a popular song dressed in Mariachi costumes. After the perf in Mexico bombs, Bernini and Dupres take Palacios to court and bankrupt him.
Ten years later, the three are reunited in Dupres’ French chateau for his wedding to the much younger Carmen (Ariadna Gil) – who just happens to be Palacios’ daughter by his ex-wife Rita (Ana Galiena), who just happens now to be married to Bernini. Palacios, who wants his wife and daughter back, is also eager to reunite the singers due to his precarious finances. He threatens the others by telling them he has found three young tenors who will take over from them, and when they call his bluff, he’s forced to find three singers in a local Italian restaurant. One of the better scenes, and one of the few to generate any emotion, is an operatic showdown between the older generation and the younger on the eve of Dupres’ wedding.
Most of pic’s problems can be traced to the hit-and-miss script. The screwball storyline is pleasingly thick with incident as the characters’ true histories are revealed, but the rapid pace comes at the cost of characterization. Despite thesps’ histrionics, characters rarely escape stereotype, whether it be Mantegna’s frenzied Spanish gesturing – though his accent sounds more Italian – Hamilton sleepwalking through Dupres, or Violeta’s desire to get rich quick.
Pic is visually ambitious, with several budget-busting set pieces involving hundreds of extras. The same cannot be said for the lush orchestral score, which is over-used and cheesy. Miming of the opera pieces is never better than acceptable and sometimes downright awful.