Made of dazzle and wit and melancholy, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ fabulously entertaining “Museum” is loosely inspired by the tale of Mexico’s most infamous museum heist: the theft of 140 Mayan and Mesoamerican objects of inestimable value from the National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve, 1985. In just his second feature after 2014’s cheekily stylish “Güeros,” Ruizpalacios spins an irresistibly inventive and unusually intelligent tall tale from this kernel of truth. All the mischief, however, is precisely counterbalanced by a deep affection for his funny, flawed (largely fictional) characters and shot through with a surprisingly biting assessment of the compromised nature of the museum trade: Who’s a thief if everything was stolen anyway? If you’re going to pick history’s pocket to tell a shaggy-dog story of distant fathers, weak sons and friendship so steadfast it can withstand even the bad weather of one’s worst ideas, you better do it with movements this deft and fingers this light.
Meet Juan (Gael García Bernal, consolidating not only his unimpeachable acting credentials but also his discerning taste as the film’s executive producer). He’s a directionless young man still living at home, who has been working on the thesis for his veterinarian degree for so long that nobody believes he’s ever going to qualify — probably not even him. Juan has a strained relationship with his doctor father (Alfredo Castro, the personification of paternalistic emotional unavailability) and both fulfills and resents his family’s estimation of him as a guy who, if he hasn’t quite atrophied into loserdom yet, likely has it in his future. Plus, he’s short, as is frequently pointed out in one of the film’s running gags.
Juan’s doggedly loyal best friend Wilson (Leonardo Ortizgris) narrates, and according to the lyrical edge to his voiceover, he may not be just the dim-bulb doofus sidekick he first seems. With retrospective ruefulness, in a gently foreshadowing past tense, Wilson fills in a few gaps in the chronology, but really his narration gives the film its little core of sadness, as he watches the friend he loves so much fail in slow motion. Having carried out the crackpot but weirdly meticulous plan, the pair embark on their quest to fence the stolen artifacts, and here begins the unraveling of everything.
This is a film of wildly different moods and segments, but Ruizpalacios is equally invested in every facet of his prismatic story: the family drama, the knockabout buddy road movie, the lovable-loser arc, the bit with Simon Russell Beale as an oleaginous British collector, the giddy heist. He finds bewilderingly clever and refreshingly new ways to deliver each strand, as though each one were the sole reason he ever wanted to make this film.
And so it marks not only the definitive establishment of Ruizpalacios as an exciting talent. Half the technical team, too, have tumbled through the arrivals gate with him. It’s difficult to adequately convey the elastic brilliance of Damián García’s dextrous cinematography, which remains stylistically coherent even while constantly inventing and switching itself up. The photography can be punkish and edgy, but also has room to find shots of immense beauty, as in the brilliantly achieved, near-silent, “Rififi”-indebted heist scene, when puffs of acrid solvent vapor spiral into the air while nearby García Bernal’s intent expression registers in the reflection on a glass case: smoke and mirrors. Every shot feels novel, but not a mere novelty — a new, more efficient and creative way of getting to the heart of a scene.
Composer Tomás Barreiro’s music is another invaluable contribution, seamlessly working between all these moods, it often dares to dip into incongruity. As Juan and Wilson lurk outside the museum, a sweetly classical theme plays. Then suddenly, insolently, it is interrupted by a wedge of swooping, swirling, bombastic Bernard Herrmann-esque intrigue. All of which somehow makes the cut to the vast quiet wide shot of the nighttime museum courtyard, with Juan and Wilson scuttling through it tinily like Tom and Jerry, even funnier as a result.
It’s not every director who could take Hitchcock, Looney Tunes, “Rififi,” The Doors and Bresson in his bouncy stride but Ruizpalacios pulls it off with a joyful sureness. In “Gueros,” some of his influences showed a little slavishly, but here, they serve the greater project beautifully. And where in his debut, he broke the fourth wall on a number of amusing but distracting occasions, here, he just taps at the glass. A soldier at a roadblock asks for Juan’s autograph because he recognizes him as “that famous actor.” García Bernal’s bewildered look back over his shoulder is a pocket masterclass in acting, image, and star power, his handsome, well-known movie-star face disingenuously wearing the expression of an ordinary guy who has just been mistaken for Gael García Bernal.
But perhaps the best aspect — apart from superlative erudition and craft — is that by the end, we really do care. Over the course of this rambunctious journey, from a rowdy family Christmas in perfectly named Satelite, a middle-class suburb of Mexico City, all the way to being drunk and high on a beach with a belly-dancing soft porn star and millions of dollars of worthless, priceless Mexican heritage, we’ve had our hearts a little bit stolen, too: the perfect heist. An opening title tells us that this story is “a replica of the original.” If so, “Museum” has to be even better than the real thing.