“Wars are mistaken for games, and games mistaken for wars,” laments Mexican talent scout Batuta (Guillermo Francella) toward the beginning of Carlos Cuarón’s dramedy Rudo y Cursi. He is watching banana-picking half-brothers Tato (Gael García Bernal) and Beto (Diego Luna) play a fateful game of soccer, and his narration makes no secret of the film’s themes. The brothers don’t know, as Batuta does, that the match will end with one of them being offered a trip to Mexico City to play professional ball; they don’t know that a penalty kick will be looked back on as first blood.
As the film begins, in fact, there’s no sign that dreams of sports superstardom have ever occurred to Tato or Beto beyond the usual boyhood daydreaming. Beto is a stormy family man, nicknamed “Rudo” in honor of his simple coarseness and prone to accumulating gambling debts. Wide-eyed Tato, on the other hand, does nurse fantasies of fame, but fancies himself a crooner rather than a footballer. He is singing, in fact, when the brothers happen upon the slick Batuta and his bleach-blonde paramour stranded by the side of the road, and he continues to sing as they trek to a mechanic’s shop adjacent to the game.
The game ends, they walk off the field, and Batuta explains the situation. He has room for one of them to come back to the city and have a go at the big leagues, and who the lucky one will be is theirs to determine. Goalkeeper Beto quickly suggests a decisive penalty kick, leaving the prize to the better player. Then he leans over and whispers selfishly in Tato’s ear: “Kick it to the right.” The stakes having been made clear, Beto still mistakes a war for a game.
Again, what happens next is merely the opening salvo, and eventually both Beto and Tato have left their humble village for our continent’s largest city. Batuta’s shrewd managerial style literally buys them each their shot at glory, and we follow their careers through respective ups and downs. Tato—nicknamed “Cursi,” or “Corny,” by a commentator after an over-the-top goal celebration—uses his sports stardom to fulfill his musical pipe dreams, releasing an accordian-ed up Spanish rendition of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” and cutting the requisite awkward music video. Even less encouragingly, his renown affords him the attention of fickle sex symbol Maya (Jessica Mas), with whom he quickly falls in love.
Meanwhile Beto, with his children and pyramid-scheming wife still in their village, allows his salary and celebrity to exacerbate his gambling; falling in with a “high-class” casino operation, his fortune declines even while his record-breaking star continues to rise. All the while the brothers live together, instinctively celebrating their love for each other even as rifts develop and a showdown becomes inevitable. (This is, after all, something of a sports movie.)
If you recognize Cuarón’s last name, it is likely because of his brother Alfonso, who directed Children of Men and the best Harry Potter movie; if you recognize his first name as well, it’s likely because he was nominated for an Oscar for helping his brother write 2001’s emotionally vibrant coming-of-age drama Y Tu Mamá También. That Carlos Cuarón’s debut feature does not suggest his brother’s facility behind the camera, then, is forgivable. (Considering the story at hand, it’s actually kind of intriguing.) He doesn’t manage to get the same level of performance from Bernal and Luna as their Y Tu Mamá breakthrough, nor does he noticeably stake out any stylistic ground for himself.
But the two films do share considerably more than their stars. Carlos clearly has a strong handle on emotional relationships between men, and both films are wonderfully humanistic, even if Rudo y Cursi’s cynicism seems more pronounced. (It is also, as the phonics of the title suggest, rude and curse-y, particularly where homophobic slurs are concerned.) Its values, however, are laudable and clear: Money, lust, and fame come and go, and brotherhood’s complexities are the root of its permanence. What goes on between brothers, in the end, has only the stakes of a game, and should not be mistaken for a war.