Until recently, Mexican-born actor-director-producer Eugenio Derbez was mostly unknown to those outside of his massive Latino fanbase. I suspect though that the 54-year-old comedic giant is at the beginning of a campaign to dominate English-speaking audiences as well. His 2014 film, Instructions Not Included, became the highest-grossing, Spanish-language film ever released here in the states. In addition, Derbez has had supporting roles in a couple of Adam Sandler films such as Jack and Jill. But How to Be a Latin Lover, a sly, silly, sometimes inappropriate comedy, is Derbez’s first primarily English-language movie, and even when the film doesn’t work, the star still comes off as funny and at ease with both broad and more subtle humor.
The film toys with the stereotype (well earned, I’m sure) that old, rich white ladies want to be seen on the arm of (and in bed with) a Latin lover to be the envy of their other rich friends, most of whom also have a gold-digging gigolo in an insanely sexy speedo by their side. Growing up poor, young Maximo (Derbez) vows to do everything he can not to have to work for money, instead hooking up with Peggy (Renée Taylor) and living in the lap of luxury as a kept man. His best/only friend is another “boy” toy played almost too convincingly by Rob Lowe, whose sugar mama is the sexually aggressive Millicent (Linda Lavin). The conversations between these two men about their struggle as sex puppets are as hilarious as they are gag inducing.
When Peggy kicks Maximo out in favor of a younger model (Michael Cera), he’s left homeless and penniless, and he’s forced to turn to his estranged sister Sara (Salma Hayek) for a place to crash. She reluctantly agrees to let him if he in turn can look after his pre-teen nephew Hugo (Raphael Alejandro) while she works, something he has no experience doing. Still, he gives it a shot and teaches the boy everything he knows about picking up girls, including some highly suspect advice about how to behave, act disinterested, and generally be a pig. Meanwhile, Maximo is looking for his next elderly target, and he sets his sites on Celeste (Raquel Welch), who just happens to be the grandmother of a girl Hugo has a crush on.
How to Be a Latin Lover is a strange Frankenstein of comedic approaches. Derbez is clearly in his element when the film focuses on him and Hayek, whether they’re at each others’ throats or actually getting along and bonding. But the humor is clearly aimed at Spanish-speaking audience members, if only for the fact that they’re usually speaking Spanish in those scenes. But first-time feature director Ken Marino (a well-known, American comedic character actor, who has directed a lot of television) also plugs in a few familiar American faces (Lowe, Cera, Kristen Bell, Rob Riggle, Rob Huebel, Rob Corddry) to make it feel more like a mainstream, English-language comedy. Sometimes, it works; sometimes, it smashes together and makes a big, loud mess.
Writers Chris Spain and Jon Zack succeed best with their screenplay when it gently tackles issues like stereotypes, ageism, and Maximo’s superficial emphasis on material possessions. But when Derbez is called upon to channel his inner Buster Keaton for more physical comedy, things can get juvenile and sloppy, practically grinding everything to a halt. How to Be A Latin Lover feels like an attempt to tick every box on a demographic chart, and in the process of attempting to please everyone, it short changes so much.
As I said, I really like the moments with Derbez and Hayek shooting the shit, catching up, remembering terrible moments from their childhood (and clearly improvising a lot), because it’s clear that both actors adore and make room for what the other is bringing to these scenes. But too often, we’re forced to endure slapstick, tired old gags, and tasteless humor without a hint of originality or wit. Still, I am curious what Derbez will do in his next venture, a remake of Overboard with Anna Faris. The potential is clearly there, if only he would do what he is clearly capable of doing best and don’t worry as much about appealing to every member of the world at large.