This odd, dark romantic-comedy is really just an excuse to watch Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, “Mozart in the Jungle”) act up a storm in a story that gives him an excuse to go through every emotion in the book in both Spanish and English. In You’re Killing Me Susana, he plays Eligio, a Mexican actor best known for commercials and telenovelas, married to would-be writer Susana (Verónica Echegui), who is tired of him coming home late drunk and constant flirting with every woman he comes in contact with. One morning, Eligio wakes up to find his wife gone and most of her clothes missing. At first he thinks she’s missing, but the police quickly reclassify her absence as abandonment, something he cannot understand.
None of her family or friends know where Susana has gone, but he eventually tracks her down at a writers’ workshop in Iowa, of all places, where she has received a coveted scholarship to finish her first novel. She has no real excuse why she simply left and didn’t tell Eligio where she was going, or why she’s already started up a love affair with a Polish poet (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) also at the workshop. But her reaction to his caveman-like behavior when he finally does track her down seems to tell us all we need to know about his priorities—he’s more upset about her sleeping with another man than whatever the reasons might be that she left him in the first place.
Adapting the novel from José Agustín, director Roberto Sneider (2008’s Tear This Heart Out) and co-screenwriter Luis Cámara have fashioned a clever, sexy, and explosive personal drama peppered with a few keen observations about how Eligio sees middle America and how residents of Iowa see him. Eligio soon wins his wife’s heart back and decides to support her writing by staying with her in Iowa while she completes her education. He quickly gets familiar with the local culture and women, in particular, a woman named Irene (Ashley Hinshaw), who seems captivated by his exotic charm, especially in a sea of white-bread boys. Eligio’s fidelity issues will clearly always be an issue, and before long, Susana leaves him again in exactly the manner as she did the first time, this time to Chicago. And the chase continues.
You’re Killing Me Susana feels a bit scattered and unfocused as a message film about the right and wrong way to love somebody. Even so, García Bernal just floats through the movie, making it look easy to be so well liked by so many. And it’s his special brand of irresistibility that pushes the movie through to the end, even if it’s somewhat unclear what the moral of the story is meant to be. The culture-clash aspect to the plot is often very amusing and revealing, while the jealous husband routine put on by Eligio at certain points seems forced and unnatural. He’s at his best when he’s broken and hurt, and by the end of the film, he’s figured out (to a certain degree) how to be a better person, even if that doesn’t mean being a better husband just yet.
As a character, Susana is somewhat underwritten—somewhat ironic since she’s a novelist—but Echegui does an admirable job filling in a bit of the empty spaces in her character. At her core, Susana feels alone in her marriage and reacts the only way she knows how. It’s just icing on the cake that turning the tables on her cheating husband drives him insane. I don’t get many opportunities to watch García Bernal act, so Susana feels like a stroll through an acting class that he’s teaching. It’s not entirely fulfilling, but it’s a nice greatest hits collection, and I’ll take it.
The film opens today for weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.