Men and women prove equally adept at acting in arrogant, selfish ways in “You’re Killing Me Susana,” a romantic drama that goes heavy on the cacophonous commotion and light on the romance or drama. Adapted from José Agustín’s novel, Roberto Sneider’s third feature finds Gael García Bernal working hard to little end as a chauvinistic soap opera actor in search of his MIA wife, who’s more than his match when it comes to callously thinking of herself before all others. Locating little humor on either side of the Mexican-American border, this tone-deaf import should attract minimal interest with anyone other than Bernal completists.
Eligio (Bernal) is a two-bit thespian whose work on a TV show primarily entails making out with the make-up artist between takes — this despite the fact that he supposedly adores his author wife Susana (Verónica Echegui). When he returns home late at night, and half-drunk, to snuggle, the look on Susana’s face indicates that she knows all too well that her husband is a cad with a taste for extramarital dalliances. Thus, only Eligio is surprised to discover, the following day, that his spouse has packed her things, left her cell phone, and disappeared into thin air (in what a 911 operator dubs a case of “spousal desertion”).
Some online sleuthing points Eligio in the right direction — namely, to a university in cold, snowy Iowa, where Susana has enrolled in a writer’s workshop. Bernal’s cocky boor races to America, where he immediately encounters a cabbie whom he deems a “fat racist jerk”; in response to this driver’s apparent attempt to overcharge him, Eligio skips out on his fare, instigating a race around the campus that results in none of the hectic zaniness Sneider intends it to generate. Moreover, it’s the first of a few instances in which “You’re Killing Me Susana” attempts some wan cross-cultural comedy, which also manifests itself in an American calling Mexico “dirty,” and Eligio responding by touting his homeland’s superior cuisine.
Eligio is a caricature of macho boorishness, and he flips his lid upon learning that Susana has shacked up with a Polish poet (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) whose enormous physical size also apparently extends to his other endowments. He and Susana scream at, and tussle with, each other, then reconcile via teary sex, and finally fall back into their same old self-destructive patterns, partly thanks to a flirty American (Ashley Grace) with eyes for Eligio.
Alas, despite Bernal’s gung-ho efforts to make Eligio charming, both his and Echegui’s protagonists are shrill ciphers more interested in satisfying their own urges and whims than acting in a thoughtful, adult manner. That, of course, would be perfectly acceptable if their bad behavior was funny, or illuminated something interesting about male-female dynamics. Yet “You’re Killing Me Susana” fully delineates its characters’ two dimensions early on, and then proceeds to re-underline their failings in one tediously frantic scenario after another.
Antonio Calvache’s cinematography and Aleshka Ferrero’s editing are in tune with the action’s boozy back-and-forth momentum, as Eligio and Susana find themselves in a constant game of amorous tug-of-war. The proceedings’ narrative and aesthetic swinging and swaying, however, proves exhausting, and isn’t aided by the supporting cast, with Haraldsson delivering a mirthless silent-goliath turn, and Grace reduced to embodying an alluring bad girl whose only intention seems to be bedding Eligio, damn the obvious consequences.
Somewhere buried deep within “You’re Killing Me Susana” is a commentary on loutish manliness, and the way in which romances are inherently fraught with tensions between individual and shared desires. Unfortunately, such notions are drowned out by all manner of irritating shenanigans involving these two me-first lovers, who shouldn’t be together and yet can’t stand being apart — and, in either circumstance, are best left ignored.