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Hayek struggles in Spanish-language debut

Living It Up (La Gran Vida) (Comedy, Spain, color, no rating, 1:52)

By Jonathan Holland

MADRID (Variety) - Salma Hayek makes a merely efficient Spanish-language debut in Antonio Cuadri's frenetic, slickly made but ultra deja-vu screwball comedy ``Living It Up.''

Channeling Cinderella and Faust through ``It's a Wonderful Life'' and ``Meet John Doe'' no doubt sounded like a terrific idea, but the picture remains too tightly locked into the tried and tested, with its breathless quest for gags strangling the character development that could have lifted it above standard fare. During its first two weeks, biz in Spain has been good but not spectacular.

``Living'' has been tailor-made for the box office good life in Latino territories, and some other Euro sales are a possibility. Hayek's involvement represents a calculated attempt to awaken Hispanic interest Stateside.

Thirtysomething Martin (hunk Carmelo Gomez, in his first purely comic role) is a depressed bus driver who decides to end it all. He bids farewell to his old neighbor Rosa (Alicia Agut) and attempts several methods of suicide, including trying to gas himself after his supply has been cut off. As Martin prepares to throw himself off a bridge, he is stopped by Salva (vet Tito Valverde), who makes him an offer: If he's prepared to delay his death for a couple of weeks, he can have -- but must also spend -- $1 million. After two weeks, he'll probably be killed by hired assassins.

With Salva as his accountant, Martin starts to live it up. With no idea how to spend the money, he decides to throw a big party, but having practically no friends, he tears a page out of the Yellow Pages for a guest list.

At the party, he swaps glances with Lola (Hayek, in dreadlocks), a spirited, devil-may-care waitress who is promptly sacked by the bad-tempered maitre d' (Eusebio Lopez). Lola initially rejects him as too rich. When she seems to soften toward him, he no longer wants to die, but his only chance of survival is to pay back the money by midnight.

Pic is thick with CGI effects, some of which work -- such as the immense rose garden that Martin, now completely in love, builds outside Lola's front door -- and some of which don't, such as the obviously artificial, ``ironic'' sunset that's the backdrop to their first kiss, the prelude to a curiously unromantic sex scene set in the Ritz.

Apart from a neat plot twist 20 minutes before the end, much of the last half-hour is repetitive. With a central cast of only three characters and a running time of almost two hours, the already exhausted script works overtime to find new developments.

Most of helmer Cuadri's experience has been directing a popular Spanish soap aimed at youth audiences, and this background is evident in parts of the script, particularly the plentiful farce sequences. Gomez's first incursion into straight comedy is more convincing early on, when his character is being established, than later, when exuberant farce comes to the fore; in general, his intelligent eyes are at odds with Martin's incredible stupidity. Hayek, too striking to be credible as a two-bit waitress, finds it hard to galvanize a stereotype. The ever-dependable Valverde turns in pic's most convincing perf as the fairy godfather.

Pacing is lively but feels rushed, with violently rendered, stylized colors emphasizing the fairy-tale aspect of the story. Production values are top-notch, with Manuel Villalta's score surprisingly and pleasingly downbeat.

Lola .......... Salma Hayek

Martin ........ Carmelo Gomez

Salva ......... Tito Valverde

Rosa .......... Alicia Agut

Montero ....... Miguel Ayones

Maitre d' ..... Eusebio Lopez

A Columbia TriStar release of a BocaBoca Producciones production, in association with Tele 5. Executive producer, Cesar Benitez.

Directed by Antonio Cuadri. Screenplay, Carlos Asorey, Fernando Leon. Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Nestor Calvo; editor, Guillermo Represa; music, Manuel Villalta; art director, Luis Valles; sound (Dolby Digital), Ivan Marin. Reviewed at Image Film screening room, Madrid, Sept. 21, 2000.

Reuters/Variety REUTERS