Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Rumba is a tasty little puff pastry. It’s a Belgian comic confection, and though it’s not very filling, it is very sweet.

Rumba illustrates a certain type of visual, physical comedy. It’s descended from silent film comedy, from post-talkie practitioners like Jacques Tatí, and most recently from films like Napoleon Dynamite. The film takes the right approach to the style: photography is square, symmetrical, perpendicular, and medium-long; the casting is impeccable: the protagonists are notably thin, with distinctive non-beautiful faces; there is much physical use of the human body, including some dancing (although this is not a dance movie), much funny walking, leaping, and pratfalls.

Distinctive faces + perpendicular photography = comedy
Distinctive faces + perpendicular photography = comedy

There is darkness in the story that makes for some good contrast with the light comedy: two schoolteachers, Fiona and Dom (Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel) are dance partners and more. One day a suicidal man steps in front of their car and they crash, costing Fiona her leg and Dom his memory. In one slapstick misfortune after another they lose their house and, eventually, each other.

But Rumba is mostly about the comedy and its particular stylistic implementation. It isn’t about its story, and there isn’t even much subtext. There’s not even much chemistry, although the perfectly-matched gaunt faces and thin bodies show that Dom and Fiona were made for each other.

In fact, it occurred to me that the reactions of Dom and Fiona to the turmoil of the movie are plastic. It’s like they’re the embodied narration of a precocious girl playing with dolls. The boy and the girl are married, which means they live in the same house, and maybe not much more. They dance. And when that gets boring a tragedy befalls them but they remain in love and together. They are mere physical forms undergoing life-altering changes with the happy grace that a playing child attributes to the whole world.

As much as I liked Rumba, I find it less than perfect somehow. I’m not entirely sure what makes me say that, and my first guess was that the third character — the one who is suicidally depressed — is too broad an actor to sell any of his emotion. On reflection I’m not sure whether this type of comedy requires genuine emotion.

A better guess is that Rumba is too funny the first time around. It tries too hard to make you laugh. There’s not enough subtlety, density, or thought-provoking gags to make it demand a second viewing. It’s a movie you could probably watch once and fully “get.”

For a lot of people, myself included, that will be good enough. Here’s hoping that Fiona and Dom, if they keep making movies, grow and age as well as Jacques Tatí did.