Helmer Carlos Osuna uses reality-traced animation techniques resembling those Richard Linklater deployed for “Waking Life,” but opts to go in a very different direction, in “Fat, Bald, Short Man.” Where Linklater explored high-flown ideas on a complex multi-voice soundtrack, Osuna creates a slow-paced story seen from one single subjective angle, placing his drawings in the service of greater intimacy. The pic’s limited-animation artistry and oversimplistic storyline complement each other to reinvent the familiar: the fragile existence of a shy, middle-aged virgin with low self-esteem constantly battered by family and co-workers. Modest pic could pleasantly surprise at fests.
For Osuna’s squiggly-outlined cartoon protagonist, Antonio Farfan (Alvaro Bayona), often offset against soft-focus live-action backgrounds, life consists of a series of greater or lesser humiliations. He’s the butt of constant teasing at his government notary job. At home, his gambling-addicted brother calls to badger him for money and mercilessly demeans him if he can’t cough up the “loan.” He even fails to assert himself when the restaurant where he regularly dines gets his order wrong.
But Osuna joins Antonio at several turnarounds in his hitherto isolated, uneventful life. Antonio is persuaded by a once-timid self-help guru to join a shyness-overcoming group. He befriends an elderly neighbor. His Dilbert-like office space is overhauled by a new boss who looks remarkably like him and values and encourages him. And a quiet, attractive woman joins the workforce at an adjoining desk. These developments foster positive changes in Antonio.
The supporting players possess just enough particularity and strangeness to register in dream-logical fashion. Antonio’s new boss miraculously appears as a government-sent guardian angel, while his neighbor unexpectedly turns paranoid, his fears assuming odd political configurations.
Admittedly, the film would come off as somewhat reductive if shot in live-action. But the minute-to-minute uncertainty of what will happen next serves to underline the film’s myriad surprises, while the abstraction of the drawings (faces amount to little more than black outlines, with simply rendered black dots and lines for features) breaks down and individuates every tiny action, intensifying the primacy of the moment.
Thus, Antonio’s transformation occurs not as forward-moving evolution but as a series of open-ended fluctuations, slowly inching him toward social interaction or else sending him scurrying back to old behaviors. He retreats and advances along his learning curve at his own eccentric rhythm, the viewer stuck on the same trajectory by the surreal quality of the animation.