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‘The Odd-Job Men’ Review: A Charming, Slight Yet Sharp Spanish Odd-Couple Comedy

Fragile masculinity and cultural biases are exposed when a Moroccan immigrant takes a handyman job in Neus Ballús' genial comedy.

The Odd-Job Men
Courtesy of Distinto Films

“I don’t know my neighbors. There is a wall between us,” muses immigrant handyman Moha (Mohamed Mellali) in voiceover in Neus Ballús’ deceptively modest, gently ingenious third feature, “The Odd-Job Men.” “Water, electricity, gas, telephone. Our building is connected to all the others in the city and to all the other cities. And yet, we’re still alone.” It’s a nicely bittersweet summation of this crookedly charming film’s central preoccupation with connection — tentatively formed and easily broken — between people separated as much by biases, culture, language and ethnicity as they are by the walls of their apartments. And who better to observe, maintain and repair some of those connections than the plumbers, electricians and builders we invite into our homes to service our utilities, to tile our splashbacks and de-ice the AC.

The job of the traveling repairman is indeed an odd one in that it requires us to give screwdriver-wielding strangers brief but often surprisingly intimate access to our bedrooms, living rooms and lives. Calm, watchful Moha, who is working through a probationary week with this small Barcelona handyman firm in the hope of landing a permanent job, is certainly aware of that privilege. But short-tempered, long-faced, soft-bellied Valero (Valero Escolar), native to Barcelona and harboring various prejudices toward his younger, fitter new apprentice, seems much less struck by the philosophy of the profession. For him, there’s little romance to a job he has done forever — and which perhaps he also resents a little, associating it with the inevitable disappointments and insecurities that come with middle age.

Under the brisk, no-nonsense administration of his wife, Valero has worked for years as part of a two-man team alongside affable perfectionist Pep (Pep Sarrà). Aptly named, Pep is however in his sixties and about to retire, and so Moha, to whom Valero takes an instant, tacitly racist dislike, is being trained as his replacement. One of the strengths of Ballús’ and Margarita Melgar’s screenplay, which evolved after a long process of workshopping and improvisation with her non-professional cast, is in its lived-in dialogue and keen-eyed observation of the way we can hide behind language, especially when there is a language barrier: Valero, airily fobbing off his own innate prejudices onto other people, claims to be worried about hiring a Moroccan man for how the company’s customers will react to him.

In reality, over the week Moha spends with him, he immediately proves a hit with their oddball selection of clients, who themselves form a neatly sketched cross-section of Barcelona’s population spanning all generations, occupations and social classes. There’s the psychoanalyst who ends up giving the bickering pair an informal free session. There are the mischievous twin girls who end up locking them for hours on a balcony. There’s the elderly man anxious to share his longevity secrets. And there’s the photographer who decides to use Moha as a model, showing off his slender physique (a bone of contention with Valero, who no longer fits into his suit and is embarking unconvincingly on a diet) in a series of ghastly portraits.

Ballús’ last film, the underseen “Staff Only,” also dealt with racism and cross-cultural incomprehension, only there it was the white family from Barcelona on holiday in Senegal who were the fish out of water. This time, that’s technically Moha’s lot, since despite being pretty much the textbook “good immigrant,” he is, after all, on a trial period in a foreign country and anxious to prove himself. But “The Odd-Job Men,” underneath a breezily comic tone established by René-Marc Bini’s playful score and carried through into DP Anna Molins’ clean, cool-toned imagery, is perhaps even more acute in its deconstruction of Valero.

Played with a completely believable hangdog anti-energy by Escolar (he and Mellali, both plumbers in real life, jointly won best actor in Locarno), this ordinary man, full of ordinary angst is an extraordinarily well-drawn snapshot of middle-aged malaise and how a certain type of man can turn dissatisfaction with himself — his aging body, his dwindling social status — out onto a world that just keeps changing without him wanting it to. If he’s not careful, this pre-emptive defense posture might calcify into a much more rigid set of intolerances than the kind he now displays. On the other hand, perhaps prolonged exposure to a calming, optimistic presence like Moha’s might pull him in the other direction: Ballús warm-hearted movie is too wise to suggest anything as glib as that these two handymen are going to end up fixing one another, but it does at least proffer the hope that they can sort out a temporary patch that should hold until the proper work can be done.

‘The Odd-Job Men’ Review: A Charming, Slight Yet Sharp Spanish Odd-Couple Comedy

Reviewed in Busan Film Festival (online), Oct. 14, 2021. (Also in Locarno Film Festival.) Running time: 85 MIN. (Original title: "Sis dies corrents")

  • Production: (Spain) A Distinto Films, El Kinògraf production, in association with Slot Machine. (World sales: Beta Film, Munich.) Producer: Miriam Porté. Executive producer: Miriam Porté.
  • Crew: Director: Neus Ballús. Screenplay: Ballús, Margarita Melgar. Camera: Anna Molins. Editors: Ballús, Ariadna Ribas. Music: René-Marc Bini.
  • With: Mohamed Mellali, Valero Escolar, Pep Sarrà, Hamid Minoucha, Youssef Ouhadi. (Spanish, Catalan, Arabic dialogue)
  • Music By: