Sólo Con Tu Pareja (also known as Love in the Time of Hysteria) marked Alfonso Cuarón’s first feature as director, which may explain why it is not as good as some of his later films. Nevertheless, it is hard to fathom how such a talented artist could come up with such a painfully unfunny comedy.

Cuarón’s story (co-written with his brother, Carlos) concerns a Mexico City lothario named Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who gets into trouble when he romances two women on the same night (in different apartments of his building): Gloria (Isabel Benet), his boss, and Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova), a nurse from the office of his doctor friend Mateo (Luis de Icaza). Soon, Silvia discovers Tomás has cheated on her and takes revenge by falsifying Mateo’s report and typing in that Tomás has contracted AIDS. In the meantime, Tomás falls head over heels for a neighbor, Clarisa (Claudia Ramirez), a flight attendant involved with a pilot.

After Tomás receives the news he has AIDS, he tries to commit suicide but is interrupted by Clarisa, who has been locked out of her apartment and asks for his help. Tomás uses the outside window ledge as a way in, but is surprised to discover Clarisa’s lover inside having sex with another woman. Distraught by the news, Clarisa asks Tomás to join him in a suicide pact. They drive to a tower from which to jump, but decide to make love first. Then they are saved in the nick of time by Mateo, who tells Tomas he does not have the dreaded disease. Tomás and Clarisa then decide to get married.

Farces about angry women teaching male wolves a lesson are usually guaranteed to amuse. Cuarón’s variation on the shopworn revenge plot adds the AIDS angle, which is a provocative and intriguing idea but not very well developed. For one thing, this dark, bitter twist occurs so late in the story (after a full hour) that viewers may have already lost interest. Moreover, some people will find the responses by the various characters off-putting and offensive. Tomás’ failed attempt at committing suicide by sticking his head in a microwave is played for laughs, and Mateo’s allowing Tomás to harm himself when he knows the truth is downright cruel (especially since Mateo, a friend, laughs with his party guests over Tomás’ misfortune before trying to save him).

Perhaps something was lost in the translation, yet even the very physical humor is poorly presented. Most of it consists of a naked Tomás wrapped in a towel (or morning newspaper) and being locked out of his apartment. Yes, you’ve seen that done before—and in better movies. The over-the-top performance by Giménez Cacho doesn’t help, although probably there were few other ways to play these scenes. The supporting cast is just as obvious and “high-spirited.”

The only trace of Cuarón’s later, better work may be found in the chiaroscuro cinematography (by Emmanuel Lubezki, a frequent Cuarón collaborator). The darkly lit interiors suggest something more profound under the surface of the comic doings and a few of the shots are quite imaginative, from the dizzying spiral staircase of Tomás’ apartment building to the closeups of Tomás’ feet squishing his odd, ubiquitous paper cup collection. So while it is hard to recommend this strained and heavy-handed comedy, there remains a hint of a major talent yet to come.