Film Review: Fugly!

The great John Leguizamo absolutely peaks in this semi-autobiographical, personal rant. Original, unbridled and very funny.

This title Fugly! refers to the nickname hung on actor Jesse Sanchez (John Leguizamo) as a child, which unfortunately stuck with him through adulthood. He explains this and a lot of other things about his crazy, kaleidoscopic world on his popular podcast one very fraught night. From a dysfunctional Colombian family, he honed his stand-up comic skills and attained a certain amount of professional success, while being an utter disaster in the personal department, with an unbroken string of failed relationships with women. These and some career backslides led him to consider suicide, which in turn leads him to reconsider his entire life while on the air.
For at least two decades now, John Leguizamo has been a bracingly welcome and refreshing Latino comic voice, and he reaches his true apogee here with this film he co-wrote with Kathy DeMarco. Drawing on many autobiographical elements—i.e., family and his early career which consisted of playing a patchwork quilt of varied, negative Hispanic stereotypes—he crafts a bold, often sidesplittingly funny portrait of the artist as a romantic/professional ethnic outcast. His writing, as delivered with crack timing by a crack cast, really pops, with a multitude of hilarious lines and observations, in a way even his highly diverting and popular one-man shows failed to achieve. And, for all the laughs, along the way he makes a number of very sharp observations about the creative urban life and how difficult it can be to maneuver.
Alfredo De Villa's felicitous direction has a beautiful, improvisatory looseness to it, and also incorporates animated drawings, lending it a graphic comic immediacy. Nancy Schreiber's very handsome, deep-toned cinematography gives Fugly! a rich look, rare in indie comedy. Leguizamo has always been a distinctly honest, raw and effective actor, and his raffish, über-physical talents gleam more brightly than ever in this tailor-made vehicle. He's that rare performer—like Richard Pryor—who wields instant empathy, and even as you laugh here, you wince as well, from the undeniable pain which created so many of these uproarious situations. If nothing else, the film is memorable for what seems a near-legendary filmic meet-up between Leguizamo and Rosie Perez, who plays his ex-wife, at long last. These two small, wiry and mouthy Latinos were made for each other, and their chemistry is downright combustible, never more so than in a wild sex scene which has to be one of the funniest ever lensed. It culminates with Perez delivering a great line, "There's no place for feminism in the bedroom!" Perez is imperially adept at playing an entertainingly self-centered bitch, but the surprise here is how good Ally Sheedy is, also playing one—Leguizamo's hard-as-nails agent, which the actress brings off with stylish, high comic verve. Griffin Dunne, agreeably dry as dust, has some of his best onscreen moments as an unlikely romantic rival to Jesse.
The cast simply abounds with human histrionic treasures, relishing the juicy opportunities Leguizamo has given them. Olga Merediz is absolutely splendid as his feisty mother, who makes no bones about always preferring his brother to him, and who took it upon herself to write her own salacious tell-all. In the great Tomas Milian's hands, the part of Jesse's grandfather (who could so easily have been a tiresomely cutesy codger) is played to perfection with a delicious sly, inveterate rapscallion humor. Radha Mitchell as Lara, the gringa Jesse never gets over after a brief youthful involvement, is a little bland and therefore somewhat mystifying as an endlessly mesmerizing love object, but in her way she accurately reflects the unfathomable perversity of human attraction, while being admittedly no kind of match for all that gorgeously raucous, barrio flavor surrounding her.

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