There's a riddle told in England that goes "What do you call an American with a sense of irony?" The answer, of course, is "An Englishman." Sadly, as Americans, we have an international reputation as dunderheads and nincompoops with no sense of refinement, style or wit. We're so poorly thought of that a Frenchman once refused to believe I was American simply because I was wearing nice socks.
Most Americans, though, don't actually care, partly because we are in fact ignorant of what other countries think of us, and partly because things like "wit" and "irony" and "style" really aren't considered all that important by Americans. We seem to be much more concerned with things like "radicalness" and "extreme sports" and "fart jokes."
These are not only our main concerns; they're also our most salient exports (well, not counting sweatshops and environmental degradation and guitar-driven power ballads). The fart joke, in fact, may wind up being the great monument to the American empire.
Which is why I was particularly concerned when Y Tu Mama Tambien, a film from the relatively civilized country of Mexico, started out with an extended series of fart jokes. But then I realized that this was not simply American culture creeping into the more sublime Mexican arts, but rather Mexico co-opting the worst of America for its own evil purposes.
See, the fart jokes are not meant to be funny in Y Tu Mama Tambien. Instead, they illustrate the emotional shortcomings of the young boys who are indulging in them. These two teen-age Mexicans, in acting like characters from American movies, show how far they have to go to be adults.
Tenoch and Julio are teen-aged stoners in their final summer before college. Their girlfriends are off to Italy for three months, and they want to have a series of meaningless sexual encounters with busty locals during this free period.
At a party, they encounter Ana, the wife of Tenoch's cousin Janos. In a strange twist for a movie's female lead, Ana is unnaturally beautiful. She's fond of showing off her unnatural aspects, actually, and one wonders if the plastic surgeons in Mexico have an exaggerated sense of proportion.
When Ana finds out that Janos is having an affair, she decides to go on a road trip with Tenoch and Julio. Tenoch and Julio, of course, think that this is their big chance to score with a grownup woman, and so are more than excited to go ahead with the plan.
OK, up to this point, with the two stoners and the hot, older woman and the plan for sexual irresponsibility, well, the movie sounds like it should start with the words "National Lampoon Presents" and have the words "dude," "where's," "my" and "car" in the title. But in spite of taking the external form of an American teen-sex comedy, Y Tu Mama Tambien is way too smart to simply be a Mexican version of American Pie.
Which isn't to say that it's a boring art film version of the teen sex comedy (which might be interesting ... I wonder what American Pie 3 would be like with Ingmar Bergman as director). Instead, it's actually manages to be funny in an intelligent way that doesn't reduce the characters to gag lines.
While it manages to pull off the difficult task of having its comedy act as more of a commentary than a series of cheap jokes, the more amazing feat in Y Tu Mama is that its many explicit sex scenes are not simply cheap titillation, but actually succeed in being integral to the story.
Every now and then you'll still hear an actress say, "I'll do nudity only if its essential to the plot." Guess what: nudity is never essential to the plot. You can always cast a shadow or cut off the frame so as to avoid nudity. If someone does nudity in a film it's not because its essential to the plot, it's for another reason that starts with "m" and ends with "oney."
Sex scenes, however, could conceivably be essential to the plot. Usually, they're just gratuitous. What makes Y Tu Mama's sex scenes interesting is that they're all bad. Everyone in Y Tu Mama has terrible sex, which is kinda the point. The teen-age boys know nothing about sex, and it shows. The sex is so bad that it is effectively not erotic, which I think is brilliant: pretty much every American movie uses attractive actors doing the ancient monkey bump dance as a cheap substitute for actual entertainment. In Y Tu Mama, the sex scenes are actually about the emotional shortcomings of the teen-age characters.
Although that alone makes it interesting, Y Tu Mama manages to be about far more than the limits of male adolescence. The use of voiceover to explicate the lives of secondary characters is both funny and affecting, the female lead is given just as much depth and importance as the male leads and there's a subtle but effective commentary on the importance of small class distinctions. All in all, far more than one would normally expect of a movie that features a scene of boys jerking off into a public pool.