It's rather unusual for a modern film to have both a contemporary and period feel to it, but director Bruno Barreto's fourteenth feature film, "Bossa Nova," manages to do just that. Despite the title that suggests it could be based on Elvis Presley's 1963 top ten hit (although that would be tough based on the lyrics) or the musical style that blends jazz and samba elements, the film is actually a delightful and entertaining little piece of fluff.
Set in modern day Rio de Janeiro but looking and sounding (thanks, in part, to the wonderful bossa nova classics by Tom Jobim) like a period romantic comedy, the film doesn't offer any new insights into love or relationships, nor is the crisscrossing and occasionally farcical plot wildly imaginative or particularly novel. Yet, the way in which Barreto, who substantially deviates from his most recent dramatic works, "One Tough Cop" and "Four Days in September," and his cast and crew combine their efforts gives the film a charming and decidedly fresh aura.
Adapted from SÚrgio Sant' Anna's novel, "Miss Simpson," by screenwriters Fernanda Young (a novelist making her screenwriting debut) and Alexandre Machado (her publicist husband also making his writing debut), this English/Brazilian hybrid (the dialogue credibly switches back and forth with English subtitles) also feels fresh due to its approach in telling a romantic comedy style story.
Instead of the more recent, cookie-cutter efforts Hollywood regularly pumps out year after year (that follow nearly the same, exact trajectories - where boy and girl meet, don't get along, then do and eventually fall in love, but have a falling out, break up and pine for each other during a montage, and eventually get back together for the happy conclusion), this film takes a somewhat different approach.
Here, the pairing follows a seemingly more random, and thus believable and pleasant, course. It also doesn't hurt that a number of subplots -- involving other romances that all eventually intersect in occasionally amusing ways - are present. Not only do such moments take the pressure off the main plot and characters from having to carry the entire picture, but they give the film a bit more of a complex than usual setup for the genre.
Even so, and despite the film having enough charm and airiness to spare, its script could have used a bit more sharpening to make its more farcical elements more effective and fun. Like many old-fashioned, screwball comedies of yesteryear, this film has several culminating moments where the various characters and interrelated subplots collide for purposes of comedy.
While such scenes - notably those occurring late in the film in Pedro's law office, a hospital and then at an airport - are cute and might elicit a chuckle or two along with some warm, appreciative smiles from the audience, they're not as funny or imaginative as they could have been. It's certainly not a horrible or debilitating problem, but since the filmmakers make the effort to set up such occurrences, a more successful execution of them would have made the film that much more enjoyable and entertaining.
What the film does have going for it, however, and which offsets any of those minor deficiencies, is a good cast that delivers solid performances for a film of this genre. In the lead role but playing the most grounded and thus least interesting character is Amy Irving ("Deconstructing Harry," "The Competition"). The real-life significant other to director Barreto, Irving is radiant in the role and one can easily see why the character played by veteran actor Antonio Fagundes ("No Coracao dos Deuses," "O Tronco") falls for her.
Inhabiting the film's best drawn and one of the most enjoyable roles, Fagundes credibly plays the middle-aged lawyer whose attraction to Mary Ann leads to some funny and heartfelt moments. He also plays well off Alberto de Mendoza ("Lola Mora," "And Then There Were None") and Pedro Cardoso ("Four Days in September," "Traicao") as his father and half-brother tailors respectively. The scenes where they lean down and breathe in the fresh smell of their new fabrics are fabulous in their insightful simplicity.
The scene-stealer, by design, however, is Alexandre Borges ("Amor & Cia," "Traicao Jose"), as the Brazilian soccer star who's been traded to England and thus thinks he needs to become proficient with English profanities and related phrases to compete on the field. Having fun with, instead of making fun of, foreigners having difficulties learning English, Borges and costar Sergio Loroza ("Orfeu," "Zoando na Tv") stage some funny bits involving dialogue goofs.
Supporting performances from the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky ("Mississippi Burning," "Basic Instinct") as the Internet suitor who turns out to be anything but what he said online, Drica Moraes ("Treason") as the young woman who falls for him, Giovanna Antonelli (a TV actress making her feature film debut) as Pedro's brash law intern, and veteran actress Debora Bloch ("Bete Balanco," "Noites do Sertao") as his ex-wife, are solid across the board.
While the film isn't great and probably isn't as good as it could have been - at least as far as the crisscrossing and then colliding subplots are concerned - it's still a delightful little piece of entertainment. Featuring a fun soundtrack reminiscent of Jobim's more familiar "Girl from Ipanema" tune, the wonderful scenery of Rio, good romantic comedy performances and just the right restrained directorial touch, the film is light, airy and instantly forgettable. Yet, it will leave a pleasant cinematic aftertaste in the minds of most viewers and that's not such a bad thing. "Bossa Nova" rates as a 7 out of 10.