Film Review: Museo

A half-assed revolutionary’s big museum score goes south in this quirky, artfully composed comedic heist.
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Many viewers might imagine, after the start of Alonso Ruizpalacios’ trickster circus show Museo, that they were in for a rebellious anti-imperialist lark about the reclamation of cultural heritage. Everything in the opening montage revolves around fakery and theft. A narrator mordantly opines about authenticity (“this is a replica of the original”) while archival footage shows the 1964 operation that moved the massive ancient statue head of the god Tlaloc to the new National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. “They wanted to fill the new museum with new things,” the voice says, implying that this was some kind of thievery which upset his good friend Juan (Gael García Bernal) and set him on the road to his own criminal plan. But then, as the voice says, “where does an idea begin?”

Wherever it came from, the idea is patently absurd. Juan is a layabout sluggard wasting his days in the staid 1980s confines of Satellite City while occasionally attending veterinary school with his passive, tagalong friend Ben (Leonardo Ortizgris). Ruizpalacios loops his movie around a few times before getting to the crux of the matter, rhythmically tracking life with a grinning world-weariness evoking the artfully composed New Wave ironies of his last feature, Güeros. When it becomes clear that Juan wants to rob the museum when it’s closed for renovations over the holidays, the movie doesn’t spend too much time on the machinations because the end result is obvious.

More talker than doer, Juan rants a blue streak, going on about Santa Claus as a tool to indoctrinate children into capitalism and lecturing any who come within range on whatever perceived injustice inflames him at the moment. It’s all a front, of course: pushing Ben into a William Tell game (a Rubik’s Cube substituting for the apple), Juan erupts in fury when Ben actually shoots the arrow. Using the possibility of a bad medical diagnosis to put off real life, he’s a spoiled prankster with a light grin and a dark heart. In other words, a perfect vessel for Bernal’s breezy and bratty, half-tragic insouciance. Ruizpalacios doesn’t give Juan a charming out—a serial breaker of promises and ruiner of family gatherings, whose main revenue source appears to be charging neighborhood kids a quarter a game to play his Atari, he’s genuinely unpleasant. At least during the smartly composed and pindrop-quiet heist section of the movie, he mostly shuts up.

Try as Juan might, his quasi-anarchist ravings about archaeology and museums being nothing more than glorified theft ring hollow. The depths of his foolishness become clear after a third-act run-in with a fence, played with slick authority by Simon Russell Beale. Fortunately, though, Ruizpalacios doesn’t waste the movie beating up on Juan’s foolishness. He’s painting a broader picture of ennui, lost suburban souls who seem to want nothing more than to tool around in their car and talk nonsense. The movie indulges in some flights of Carlos Castaneda fancy and a few surrealist fillips near the conclusion that are more effective for their subtlety (particularly a fist fight in a strip club we see from Juan’s perspective, a bright spotlight on his face as he pummels his aggressors to the accompaniment of badly timed Jean-Claude Van Damme sound effects). They add an appropriately dreamy texture to an already off-kilter heist narrative in which the purpose seems to be not money or fame, but simply something to do.