Balkan Mountains—1995. Great opening shot: From under a drain grate, on the bottom of a well, looking up at the sky … no, wait—that’s no grate. It’s the silhouette of an obese, naked, dead man being winched upward, after having been dumped down there, ostensibly by Serbs, to contaminate a Croatian village’s water supply.
Who you gonna call? Corpse busters. Hauling out this human contamination bomb is Mambrú (Benicio Del Toro), the Puerto Rican leader of an international team of four aid workers. Hmm … looks like that rope is frayed.
The not-quite-“M.A.S.H.” movie, “A Perfect Day,” is kind of like a macabre Dr. Seuss rhyme (improv’d Seuss-like poem): “My hat is off. My rope is old. I have a corpse I like to hold.” Snap! Plummet! Splash! “And now my story is all told.”
Meet the Cast
Teaming up with Mambrú is veteran loose cannon “B” (Tim Robbins), whose adrenaline-junkie cowboy attitude, fronted by his deadpan delivery, scares the rookies. Like this (made-up dialogue):
“Is that a dead cow in the middle of the road?”
“Yep. Know why? They kill cows and put landmines next to them. But you never know whether it’ll be to the right or left of the cow.”
“Which way do we go then??!”
B floors the jeep straight over the cow—and much shrieking and hyperventilating ensues.
Doing the shrieking is the rather too-pretty blonde, French Sophie (Mélanie Thierry), the group’s achingly naïve, idealistic, stubborn, contentious, rather unlikely, water and sanitation expert.
Next up is interpreter Damir (Fedja Stukan), a melancholic local, looking a little like Daniel Day-Lewis with a droopy black ‘stache, and—because of the location and the long coat—a little bit Borat.
Then there’s dark, stunning Russian Katya (Olga Kurylenko). Mambrú runs into her while attending a U.N. meeting. She’s there to ascertain whether the area’s still in need of aid workers.
Mambrú and Katya once had a thing, when she was a rookie. But now Mambrú’s got a girlfriend back home who’s demanding a domesticity decision. Mambrú’s a wiley, gruffly charming keeper-opener-of-options.
It’s a replace-the-frayed-haul-rope plot: They drive around looking for a better rope to haul the corpse-contaminant with. They get a tip from a local boy they rescue from bullying, who leads them to a very fine piece of rope indeed—problem is, one end of it is attached to an exceedingly unfriendly German Shepherd.
Why should we care about any of these people? Because they’re all idealistic, good Samaritans? Who feel it’s a calling, to deal with putrid cow-bombs, putrid well-bombs, no sleep, endless and maddening bureaucratic red tape, shifting chains of-command, freezing overnights in their two-jeep convoy that has “Aid Across Borders” stenciled on the side?
Sort of. There’s more than a little kinship to anti-war comedies like “M.A.S.H.,” as well as 1996’s tornado movie “Twister,” where an intimate, committed crew, arriving from far and wide, band together to face danger on a regular basis—and take a laid-back, jokey approach to all of it. And appear equally (if not more) interested in fooling around with any member of the opposite sex who’s available.
Which is always a good story to tell—”M.A.S.H.” was so beloved, it spawned an equally beloved TV spinoff that ran for a good long time.
The thing is, in the face of daily atrocities, while they clearly face the constant challenge of hanging onto their compassion, this particular crew in this particular movie is a little too laid-back, a little too unaffected-looking, the humor a little too lightweight, and the instances and degree of exposure to what they’re up against, a little too diluted—to conjure up the necessary amount of audience pathos to care about their struggles.
Still, most likely due to a counterculture upbringing on 1960s hippie communes, wreathed round with strains of Ravi Shankar and Bob Dylan, this reviewer has a soft spot for these kinds of stories: of cozy, small, impassioned communities, standing in the face of tremendous odds, compassionately trying, in some form or another (Vietnam War protests, Biodynamic gardening, Waldorf education, Save the Whales, and so on) to save sentient beings.
‘A Perfect Day’
Director: Fernando León de Aranoa
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Mélanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 15
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5