Rudo y Cursi scores cinematic 'GOOOAALLL!'

The title of the Mexican film Rudo y Cursi translates as "Rude and Corny," and derives from the nicknames of two brothers who take their sibling rivalry onto the professional soccer field. For his first feature film, Carlos Cuarón proves himself to be a brash, promising rookie who delivers not so much a sports movie as an anti-sports movie.

Cinema usually holds up athletic success as a pinnacle in human achievement and wrings the maximum pathos from the genre's rags-to-riches stories. Sugar opened last week to offer a more skeptical perspective on American sports' effects on Third World players. Rudo y Cursi's cynical, satirical point of view goes a step further to suggest that Mexico's pro fútbol brings out the worst in everyone. In a scene that typifies Rudo y Cursi's sense of humor, a pair of overly enthusiastic fans threaten a slumping player with violence if he doesn't start scoring. Then they ask for his autograph.

Rudo y Cursi isn't particularly corny, but it's definitely rude, as well as fleet, energetic and funny. Despite its dyspeptic look at sports, celebrity, family and Mexican social trends, it's shot through with breezy humor and enough flickers of optimism to ensure it scores. Rudo y Cursi proves so funny and confident that it instills a feeling of relief, like you've been waiting for just such an effortless entertainment to come along.

The film opens with one of its grace notes: a montage of makeshift soccer goals in urban vacant lots and rural dirt fields. It's a sign of how the game endures no matter how bleak the surroundings. In one tiny village, we find two brothers. Beto, aka Rudo (Diego Luna), supports a wife, baby and gambling habit with his job as a banana farm foreman. He employs his younger brother Tato, aka Cursi (Gael García Bernal), who plays accordion and has dreams of being a singer. The shots of the banana farm and its hovels make the point of desperate poverty without turning too plighty.

Both brothers play soccer for a local team, and draw the attention of Batuta (Argentina's Guillermo Francella), a briefly stranded soccer scout. Francella makes Batuta a lusty but wholly untrustworthy character as he chatters constantly, treats women like arm candy, and drives a red convertible with a horn that plays "La Cucaracha." He looks to be a perfect scam artist and claims to be interested in getting both brothers shots at the big time, but can only take one.

The inequity fires almost homicidal jealousy between Rudo and Cursi until the other gets a chance, too. The film conveys the brothers' awe at the scale of Mexico City and their bewildered disappointment at professional soccer's cruelties. They don't get paid unless they get off the bench, and their teammates subject them to outrageous initiations in the showers.

In a fit of perversity, Rudo y Cursi conspicuously keeps the sport largely off-camera, except for a couple of pivotal penalty shots. Cuarón leaves athletic prowess to our imagination and focuses on the spectators' reactions, from the poker-faced scouts to hysterical fans. The choice conveys the idea of the game as a blank canvas for the viewers' projections, and urges the audience to judge the brothers based on their off-field actions.

Frankly, neither seems to deserve mega-stardom. Aspiring pop singer Tato makes a tacky music video of a Cheap Trick song (the film's comedic highlight) and falls for a gold-digging TV hostess. Beto succumbs even more in the face of temptation, and soon racks up massive debts to the mob. They even argue about who'll get to build their mother her dream house. Bernal and Luna make both their roles painfully naïve, although Bernal emphasizes boyish effervescence compared to Luna's snarly stubbornness.

It seems unfair to fault Rudo y Cursi for its negative portrayals of women given that nobody fares particularly well. At least it subverts the clichés of their female family members as poor but noble. Beto's wife resists joining him in the city because she claims to have found a fulfilling career selling an Amway-like line of products. Their mother, meanwhile, seems surprisingly supportive of their hometown's wealthy drug don. Both details imply that social changes have co-opted heartland values.

Rudo y Cursi is easily mistaken for an Y Tu Mamá También reunion. It presents the same leading men and the filmmaker is the brother of Mamá director Alfonso Cuarón (who produced Rudo with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, three of Mexican cinema's leading lights). Rudo has its share of raunchy humor but doesn't show the same bittersweet worldview or sympathy for its characters as Mamá. Instead, its snappy pace, masculine banter and love of cheesy pop music suggest a sports-oriented, South-of-the-border Martin Scorsese. How about Goalfellas for a title?