Benicio Del Toro is a funny kind of movie star. He broke out thanks to his deeply weird, scene-stealing turn in "The Usual Suspects," and ever since has had the kind of career that's lived up to that performance — he's generally chosen to appear in offbeat movies. But just when you think you've got him pegged, he'll do something huge and mainstream like "The Wolf Man" or "Guardians Of The Galaxy," even if those movies are odder than the average blockbuster, and his idea of a prestige picture is a two-part biopic of Che Guevara. So it's rare that he gets to do the sort of thing that someone like George Clooney has built a career on: be funny, charming and a little romantic. "A Perfect Day" gives him that opportunity, arguably for the first time since "Excess Baggage," and it's fun to see the actor flex those muscles. Unfortunately, the film itself is disappointing.
This English-language debut of Spanish helmer Fernando León de Aronoa is set in the Balkans in 1995 and sees Del Toro play Mambru, a veteran worker at NGO Aid Without Borders who's only got a week left before he returns home to his girlfriend Sarah. Alongside his colleagues — burnout logistics guy B (Tim Robbins), new arrival Sophie (Melanie Thierry) and translator Damir (Fedja Stukan) — he finds a bloated, obese dead body dumped in a well, which threatens to poison the water supply if it’s not removed within 24 hours.
There are a number of obstacles to having the body taken away going beyond the threat of local militias who aren’t paying that much attention to the ongoing peace talks. For one, they don’t have any rope, and it’s proving harder than you’d think to get more. For another, UN bureaucracy could get in the way. For yet another still, Katya (Olga Kurylenko), who Mambru had a brief affair with a year or two back, has arrived to evaluate whether the mission should be shut down.
The obvious comparison point here is Danis Tanovic’s “No Man’s Land,” but there are also elements of the films of Emir Kusturica, “M*A*S*H*” and “Catch-22” in the film’s tone and approach, which chronicles the hard reality and gallows humor common to providing aid in a conflict zone. And Aronoa certainly has a game cast. Del Toro’s surprisingly effective and charming here, Robbins is having a lot of fun as a hippyish burnout, and Stukan’s deadpan affect marks him out as something of an MVP for the movie. The director also shoots the film with real flair and scope, especially in the energetic early goings (it quite literally slows to a crawl later on, as the team are trapped overnight between a roadblock and a potentially land mined cow), and it’s refreshing to see the script’s aversion to creating artificial drama in a situation that’s already crammed as such. Though there are contrivances, this film ably evokes the day-to-day reality of being a humanitarian aid worker.
And yet there are problems, some of which virtually cripple the film. First and foremost, it isn’t very funny. The humor is there on paper, but it ends up emptily quippy and gag-filled rather deriving the jokes from situations and character, and only one in three end up landing, mostly thanks to Robbins. Elements of pathos are perhaps more effective, but even then, there’s nothing much to say here beyond "war is hell" and "bureaucrats are annoying," and by the end, there’s no real sense that Del Toro’s character has changed from where he was at the beginning. Meanwhile, the plot strand involving his past relationship with Kurylenko’s character in particular goes nowhere, and is evocative of the way that women are treated in the film in general. Thierry and Kurylenko are both solid, but they don’t get much to do other than complain, obstruct and generally be less competent than the men, who get most of the work and have all the fun.
In places, the film works nicely, particularly in the early stages, and you can see what might have attracted such a talented bunch of people to the project. However, there are also some quite questionable choices that drag the whole down, most notably a dreadful scene scored to Marilyn Manson’s “Sweet Dreams” cover, the music supervisor apparently confusing the film for a trailer for an “Underworld” movie.
Overall, the film is rarely actively bad, but more often inspires a shrug. In fact, the structure of the film, from its day-in-the-life plot (and various sub-plots) to restoring the status quo by the end, makes it feel less like a movie and more like a middling TV pilot. And while it’s good to see Del Toro having some fun with material like this, even he wouldn’t be enough to make you keep watching that hypothetical show. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.