Film Review: A Perfect Day

Oscar-winning actors Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins are able to give a Spanish filmmaker’s Balkan war comedy a much-needed boost.
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So many films are hitting the festival circuit each year that are barely getting a theatrical release, but realizing that the English-language debut by Spanish filmmaker Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun, Princesas) includes Oscar-winning actors Benicio Del Toro and Tim Robbins may make you wonder why A Perfect Day is mainly relying on VOD to find its audience.

Aranoa’s sporadic output consists of a film every five years dealing with the Spanish working class, which makes A Perfect Day, based on the novel Dejarse Llover by Spanish author Paula Farias, a clear departure in more ways than just its language and locale.

The opening shot of a bulbous corpse being hauled out of a well sets up a film about a group of feisty outsiders working for “Aid Across Borders” in a war-torn area “somewhere in the Balkans” in 1995, trying to help locals whose well has been contaminated, forcing them to buy fresh water from those responsible.

Del Toro’s Mambrú and Robbins’ “B” keep the viewer invested with their untraditional tactics that constantly put them in conflict with the United Nations, but they’re very different men: Robbins’ character doesn’t take anything too seriously, while Del Toro gives the film some much-needed soul.

Their travelling companions include Olga Kurylenko as Katya, a Russian beauty with whom the married Mambrú once had an affair; Mélanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) as new girl Sofie, and actual Balkan native Fedja Stukan (In the Land of Blood and Honey) as their interpreter, Damir. Along the way, they take a local boy under their wing, trying to protect him from bigger kids that have been bullying him.

Watching Aranoa’s latest film, it’s hard not to be reminded of Richard Shepard’s overlooked The Hunting Party, which used a similar “spoonful of sugar” method to educate and inform viewers about the Balkan war between the Muslims and Serbs without taking things too seriously. Dark comedies set during wartime can often be a hard sell tonally, but A Perfect Day works better than other recent attempts like Bill Murray’s Rock the Kasbah, mostly due to Aranoa’s solid writing and casting.

What’s lacking is much of a story, because the whole movie is literally about the search for rope to get that body out of the well, so it becomes more about the relationships between unlikely co-workers thrown together by their situation.  Most of the interactions are enhanced by witty repartee from Del Toro and Robbins, but the two women aren’t handled nearly as well, with Katya there solely as temptation for Mambrú. Thierry’s never able to adjust to the tonal shifts, going overboard with her reactions and acting scared in any given situation, whether appropriate or not. The inability of the cast to shift with the changing tone results in an uneven film whenever we’re reminded of the horrors of their environment.

Aranoa’s decision to use a mostly rock soundtrack, complete with vintage Ramones and Lou Reed, gives A Perfect Day a distinctive feel that makes it far more enjoyable than it might have been in the hands of a less experienced filmmaker, but that music only does so much to make up for the flimsy plot. Although it does eventually deliver a satisfying resolution to that story, the movie feels slightly padded with unnecessary character moments which keep it from being nearly as effective as it could have been.

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