Perhaps it seems too richly ironic that renegade director Álex de la Iglesia would follow a film literally set in the circus (The Last Circus) with a movie centered on the so-called media circus, but in As Luck Would Have It, the man behind such masterful comedy-thrillers as Common Wealth and The Perfect Crime does just that, turning out one of his most humane and socially perceptive films in the process. A virtual 180-degree shift from the brutal excess of The Last Circus, As Luck Would Have It might not appear to be as immediately grotesque as that gun-toting, grease-painted nightmare, even if it qualifies (and it very well might) as the director's most cynical satire to date.
It wasn't too long ago that ambitious adman Roberto (José Mota) was on the path to a promising career. But now the economy has tanked and jobs are hard to come by. Fortunately for Roberto, his wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) loves him unconditionally. When the latest in a depressing series of unsuccessful job interviews leaves Roberto's future looking particularly grim, he realizes he can no longer keep his family's dire finances a secret and suffers a momentary bout of insanity that leaves him hanging between life and death. Determined to do something nice for his wife on their anniversary, he goes to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon and finds that a Roman theatre has been unearthed on the site. It's currently being transformed into a museum, but before the mayor and museum director have a chance to bring in the press, Roberto sneaks into the location and suffers a terrible fall while fleeing from security guards. As a result, his skull is pierced by an iron rod that bisects his brain. Since it hasn't caused any actual damage, Roberto is awake, alert, and able to communicate with his wife. But when the doctor called in to assess the situation reveals that the rod is pressing on a sinus canal that drains the blood from the brain to the jugular, they realize that any attempt to move him could kill him. Concerned for his children's future, Roberto seizes an opportunity to turn his own personal tragedy into a monetary windfall for them, and hires an agent. Before long, all spotlights are shining on Roberto. His plan seems to be working, but what he doesn't understand is that his wife would rather have a husband and father in the house than money in the bank.
Ever since his feature debut with Acción Mutante, de la Iglesia has gained a reputation as an intensely visual filmmaker with an eye for satire. His perceptive movies morbidly reflect society's darkest truths in a way that allows us to laugh at them, rather than be overwhelmed by them. Likewise, his knack for sustaining tension draws him frequent comparisons to the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. The first thing de la Iglesia fans are likely to notice about As Luck Would Have It is that it lacks the visual flamboyance the director typically brings to his films. Together with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Kiko de la Rica (Common Wealth, The Oxford Murders), de la Iglesia creates a slick, handsome piece of work that, while not without the occasional stylistic flourish, allows the story to remain the focus. Given the limited setting of As Luck Would Have It, some directors might have been tempted to go wild with the camera, but by keeping the scenes tightly controlled, de la Iglesia allows the talented Mota to be the center of attention. Given Roberto's role as a struggling everyman, it provides us the opportunity to connect deeply with the character and identify with his frustrations.
Roberto is a smart, kindhearted family man whose confidence has been thoroughly crushed by his inability to find a job in a poor economy, and screenwriter Randy Feldman (Hell Night, Tango & Cash) illustrates this with an early, intricately detailed sequence following him on his latest unsuccessful job interview. Though perhaps not the most subtle skewering of the entitled younger generation or the arrogance of the old guard, it's an effective scene made all the more emotional via not only the telling details that have been scattered throughout the exposition, but also by Mota's stoic gaze as he walks out of the meeting with his head held high and tears in his eyes. Later, when Roberto's inner cynic is unleashed as Luisa and their children gather around, we're able to forgive his momentary lapse in judgment for his benevolent intentions -- after all, what father facing death and in dire financial straits wouldn't consider exploiting his situation if it meant securing a college education for his kids? Meanwhile, as the public flocks to the scene and the media scrambles for an exclusive, Feldman adroitly points out how we all risk becoming the victims of our own fragile egos by highlighting the mayor and museum director's misguided attempts at damage control. As a result, we're allowed closer emotional access to the tragic figure at the center of As Luck Would Have It than we are to the protagonists of most of de la Iglesia's movies, giving this caustic caricature of the media more of a heart than virtually anything else in the director's filmography. Sure, there are a few fine comic moments courtesy of de la Iglesia regular Manuel Tallafé, but this is largely Mota's show, and even incapacitated he still commands the screen. At the same time, Hayek proves to be much more than just a pretty face as Roberto's loyal wife Luisa, a strong woman who staunchly refuses to lose sight of the things that really matter.
Yes, in many ways As Luck Would Have It represents the very thing that many fans of the director fear most -- a more mature, refined Álex de la Iglesia. Even so, it's hard to fault him for choosing to direct such an uncompromising screenplay that's filled with vividly drawn characters and brimming with contempt for the way mass media can distort our priorities. It's very much in keeping with the ideas he has been exploring ever since Acción Mutante, even if it forgoes the outrageous methods previously employed to deliver them. There are no physical mutants in As Luck Would Have It -- only intellectual ones -- and in reality those are far more horrifying than either the malformed terrorists of de la Iglesia's first feature or the trigger-happy clown of his last.