Jonathan Nossiter’s loony, largely improvised “Rio Sex Comedy” follows half a dozen expats — an American ambassador (Bill Pullman), a liberated plastic surgeon (Charlotte Rampling), a documentary filmmaker (Irene Jacob), a sleazy tour guide (Fisher Stevens), etc. — on a culturally and sexually challenged tour of the Brazilian hot spot, ridiculing everything under the sun in the process. Though this unpredictable, overlong farce strains in its search for the outrageous, Nossiter does succeed in stripping away cliches about the city by manipulating certain stereotypes, making for a saucy novelty bound to find its very small aud among middle-aged, Middle American arthouse patrons.
While Brazilian officials reportedly throw incentives at Woody Allen in hopes the helmer will film his next sex comedy in Rio de Janeiro, Nossiter has fashioned an irreverent alternative, one far less likely to earn the tourism board’s seal of approval, yet clearly grounded in the director’s own observations of the city, where he’s lived for the past six years. The film itself was developed over several years, with the game cast visiting off and on to investigate their loosely scripted roles — which share the actors’ real-life names, wardrobes and other unspecified qualities.
In a fairly straightforward example of the hypocrisy being critiqued, anthropological filmmaker Irene (Jacob) goes around interviewing housekeepers about the inequalities they face, while extending none of the same considerations to her own hired help (Mary Sheyla). When her French husband (Jean-Marc Roulot) convinces Irene to enlist his cameraman brother (Jacob’s actual husband, Jerome Kircher), he inadvertently opens the door to an affair — one defined by unsexy, unsimulated sex — and then, rather than confront the couple, seeks irrational revenge in the company of low-class prostitutes.
Intercut with but otherwise unrelated to these marital misunderstandings is William (Pullman), a reluctant politico who escapes his duties during a visit to one of Rio’s favelas. While the authorities presume the ambassador has been kidnapped or worse, William meets scam artist “Fish” (Stevens) and explores a side of the city outsiders seldom see; Nossiter’s charitable view of life in Rio’s hillside slums aims to correct the crime-infested image propagated by films like “City of God,” with the truth clearly falling somewhere in the middle. Though William’s intentions are honorable, his randy friend Fish wants nothing more than to bed glamorous Amazon princess Iracema (striking newcomer Daniela Dams, juggling several languages, including her tribe’s imaginary tongue), who singlehandedly fulfills most of the film’s nudity quotient.
While William and Irene represent separate indictments of how liberal outsiders interface with local Brazilian culture, Rampling’s still-spicy Charlotte allows Nossiter to riff on the city’s out-of-control cosmetic surgery craze — ranging from unnecessary nose jobs to complete sexual-plumbing overhauls, with a cameo by legendary plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy thrown in for good measure. Charlotte, who opens a consulting office designed to talk clients out of operating, loosely serves to unite the other characters, who approach her at different points wanting to alter their appearance.
Inviting spontaneous disruptions as it does — including a “Borat”-style stunt in which a character runs through a favela in his underwear — the sprawling story seems disorganized even by Robert Altman standards. With Nossiter narrowing down some 300 hours of footage to a still-unwieldy 126-minute running time, “Comedy” more closely resembles a Henry Jaglom film, especially in its too-casual shooting style and amateur-feeling performances.
Clearly, the actors relished participating in such a freeform experiment (they each accepted reduced salaries in exchange for an equal stake in the finished project), and its disorganized feel is arguably more realistic than any amount of scripting could achieve. Not only did the actors not know what was going on in their collaborators’ storylines, but they seem to have had very little idea where their own plots were headed. Hilarious ideas are constantly being set up and abandoned, while others wear out their welcome, as in Fish and William’s increasingly absurd series of NGO pitch meetings. The anarchic result moves freely between the worlds of high-rise privilege and low-class favelas, bustling with energy and background noise to assume a form that ultimately proves more exhausting than entertaining.