Monday, September 25, 2023

Movie Review: ‘Rotting in the Sun’ Squanders Its Potential

Director: Sebastián Silva
Writers: Pedro Peirano and Sebastián Silva
Stars: Jordan Firstman, Rob Keller, Vitter Leija

Synopsis: Follows social media celebrity Jordan Firstman as he starts a search for filmmaker Sebastian Silva who went missing in Mexico City. He suspects that the cleaning lady in Sebastian’s building may be involved in his disappearance.

In Sebastián Silva’s Rotting in the Sun, the writer/director/actor plays a fictionalized version of himself dealing with a variety of struggles. As the Emil Ciroan novel he’s reading succinctly puts it, Sebastián is dealing with The Trouble with Being Born. HBO is turning down every pitch he throws at them as he finds himself living in a friend’s barely-held-together apartment. At no point in the film do we see Sebastián, the auteur of this meta-layered film, in a glamorous light. Instead, it’s a rather upsetting depiction of what it can mean to be an artist. To give and give and give, and everything is either taken for granted or cast aside into a pile of garbage due to a simple accident. It’s this depiction of artistry that makes the sudden turning point in Rotting in the Sun very intense and scary. But before that, Silva’s film has a ton of fun, indicating an interesting dichotomy to the filmmaker. 

As Mateo, Sebastián’s friend, finds the filmmaker disappearing deep within a K-hole losing his way in life, he pokes fun. Rather than sit down one-on-one, he takes light jabs in a way that may seem similar to how people typically treat relationships. As humans, we acknowledge when times are tough, but it usually takes quite a while to get to that point. Instead, it seems like society as a whole has found it easier to simply look past it and assume the storm will blow over soon. All will turn out okay if we simply ignore the warning signs and push them down with a beach trip. And that’s exactly what Sebastián does. Finding himself on the nude beach of “Zicatela”, one might think Sebastián is looking to get away from the darker thoughts brewing within. Yet, with book in hand, things don’t turn out nearly the way he, or the audience, might have assumed.

From there, Silva’s Rotting in the Sun takes a two-pronged attempt at showing how society grapples with mental health. More specifically, it deals with the consequences of society ignoring it; or at least it attempts to. On the surface, Rotting in the Sun is a clever film in how it goes about addressing its core themes. But its final two-thirds feels far too dull to resonate with viewers all that well. As three distinct parties try to cope and/or deal with the culpability of their actions, there’s no question that Silva knows exactly what he wants his film to say. It’s all there, captured in moments via handheld camerawork that feel not just worrisome, but damning. Yet, the finale involving Vero, arguably the most dense role of the film, from Catarina Saavedra, feels like it gives up on itself when all is said and done. A bow is put on the film and all its characters’ issues before either a palpable resolution is felt or a purposeful non-resolution is apparent. It’s a frustrating end to an otherwise solid house of cards being built.

Rotting in the Sun may squander its potential as a meaningful commentary on society dealing with mental health, but it doesn’t miss the mark when it comes to one of its central characters. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, every word out of comedian/influencer Jordan Firstman’s mouth is incredible. Taking a meta approach to comedy can be hit-or-miss nowadays, but Firstman handles it very well. He’s often laugh-out-loud funny without having a hint of tackiness to it. It’s impressive the levels at which this performance works when very little of it actually feels performative. What’s most ironic is his entire character feels like a commentary on performative Internet behavior in and of itself, so there’s just many comedic layers to enjoy here. While Rotting in the Sun certainly has issues thematically, it’s great that a distributor like MUBI is around to showcase the talents both in front of and behind the camera. While the commentaries within the film are rather broad overall, Silva’s film is one that’s entertaining and forces you to, at times, question a wide range of topics from social media and mental health to classism and nude beaches. The film is at its strongest when it plays out like a full-fledged beach comedy, but Silva must at least be applauded for not relying solely on this setting. Instead of stripping that beach of all its comedic potential, Silva rips his characters, and in turn, himself, back to reality in an attempt to make a film that speaks to a specific moment in time: the present many of us find ourselves in.

Grade: C-

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