“Desperados” initially looked promising, and that promise can still be seen lingering in the distance sometimes as the film does everything it can to ignore it. It’s a frustrating watch because it wastes the time of four talented, funny leads on material that isn’t interested in their talents.
Watch the trailer for Netflix’s “Desperados” and you’ll know it’s not exactly Oscar bait. Nasim Pedrad plays a down-on-her-luck woman named Wesley who finally finds the perfect relationship – or at least what she thinks is one. Yet when her boyfriend ghosts her, she sends him an angry, insulting email. It’s then that he calls, revealing that he hasn’t contacted her for days because he was in a car accident and is at a hospital in Mexico.
She only has days to make it to his devices and delete the email before he sees it. That means she has to travel to Mexico, find his room at a resort, and find his phone and laptop. She brings her two more sensible friends – played by Anna Camp and Sarah Burns – along for the adventure. It’s a set-up with some holes, but who cares about that? It’s a solid enough premise for a fish-out-of-water story.
I’ll be blunt: I was looking for a crass comedy. What I was hoping for was something in the Will Ferrell range of comedies. To see an actress like Pedrad open the door on that kind of comedy would have been promising. Unfortunately, what I got was a latter-day Adam Sandler-style comedy – and not one of his 90s or even 00s efforts.
Now, I don’t want to punish a movie for being in a different vein than I expected – but when I bring up Adam Sandler I mean the kind of comedy that feels simultaneously forced and lazy in repeated, casually racist ways. What’s my biggest problem with the movie?
“Desperados” is Racist Trash
What evidences that they’re in Mexico? The only two Mexican characters with lines are supporting actors whose job it is to screw up simple tasks like carrying the bags and chasing Wesley in bumbling pursuits.
After leaving the resort, two characters stay in a hotel in a Mexican city. They leave in a panic when it turns dark because the night erupts in violent sounds like a “chainsaw sawing through bone” and gunshots.
You might also catch two seconds worth of mariachi music. Mexico, everybody!
But don’t worry, they’ll visit a Mexican guru played by…Heather Graham. Luckily, she’s presented as a complete charlatan! Until she’s revealed to be an honest guru who can really see the pain in people’s souls.
So what is Mexico according to “Desperados”? Beautiful beaches for tourists, when they don’t have to deal with rampant murderers and bumbling, lazy idiots who can’t even carry a bag right. Hilarious! What hilarity! If I’m not laughing on the outside, it’s only because I’m laughing on the inside at how tired I am of this, how I’ve had to deal with this as the understanding of what Mexican people are since I first knew how to talk to others.
But it’s a comedy? Then it’s not a very good one.
Part of the reason I was excited for “Desperados” is that Pedrad is an Iranian-American actor. One of her love interests in this is Lamorne Morris (who you might recognize from “New Girl”) . You don’t get too many films in this country where the romantic triangle hinges on an Iranian-American woman and a Black man. I’m just so tired of Mexican people being the fuel that gets churned through in order to boost others. And I’m not blaming either actor. Actors don’t always have the luxury of seeing the whole picture, and they’re not always performing these elements of the movie themselves.
It’s not a high bar to clear to ask writer Ellen Rapoport and director LP to know better. There are funny parts to this movie that don’t rely on casually insulting Mexico or Mexican people. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the two leads happening upon a quinceanera. They discuss what Mexican characters have said to them, but the Mexican characters they’re referring to don’t actually get to speak. How much better might it have been if a Mexican character had gotten to speak at the event that was 95% composed of Mexican characters? Here they’re just background, and it’s frustrating when that’s a relief because you so fear how the writer might have insulted them if they’d had a speaking role. That’s what we’re taught to expect of Mexican characters. Movies are so consistently insulting to them that it’s a comparative success for us when we can just remain in the background and not be heard from.
You can make a movie where an Iranian-American and Black lead have romantic chemistry, written and directed by women, and that drives home a feminist undercurrent, without having to throw another marginalized community under the bus to do it. And the thing is, none of this racist junk was even funny. It felt forced, tacked on, awkward. It wasn’t successful, and it takes away from the heart that the actors in “Desperados” are working pretty hard to give it.
Why is it that we can only legitimize their work by de-legitimizing someone else’s? It pisses me off that Mexico and Latin-Americans are constantly treated as a laughingstock in American movies, the side characters, the clumsy, apologetic porters, the murderers and rapists someone like Donald Trump says we are. White supremacists and Hollywood – this is one of those few places where both seem to agree, but damn are they in lockstep on it.
A Waste of Talent
The thing that pisses me off second most about this is that you’ve got four leads who are actually funny in the unforced moments: Pedrad, Morris, Camp, and Burns. When they’re just asked to relate to each other, move along a plot point, or banter back and forth, they sell it regardless of the writing. There are some very human moments that are entirely brought forth by these four leads being phenomenal.
The movie just doesn’t trust their talent. Pedrad is asked to react to way too many scenes that shoehorn in ridiculous events. When it’s Pedrad inciting the ridiculous events, they work because she has agency in the scene and she knows what to do with that as an actor.
As viewers, we trust her because she demonstrates again and again that she’s worth trusting. Pedrad can own the scene and its space, and her performance can define the energy for how the scene plays. When she’s the catalyst for a scene – running through a resort naked or chasing a cat up a tree – she makes it work regardless of whether it should because that’s what a comic actor of her caliber does.
When she’s reacting to a scene – a hotel porter wrestling over her bag until a dildo comes flying out of it, or a dolphin dry humping her as she sits on a floating dock – it feels forced because…well, re-read the fucking sentence. So why do I have to wade through so much crap to get there? Why do I have to watch a scene where a dolphin slaps Wesley in the face with his dick?
The thing is, for all of its messaging about Wesley seeking a healthy relationship and valuing the women who support her through it, this is a film that doesn’t trust women leads to carry or catalyze the comedy the way that a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler might be trusted.
Hell, this stuff happens in Adam Sandler films, but never to Sandler. It happens to the people of color around him. I think back to “The Ridiculous 6”. It had some of this humor – most Adam Sandler comedies do. But it’s not Sandler who’s ever embarrassed in them. In “Ridiculous 6” it’s Rob Schneider, a man who’s part Filipino playing a Mexican who has sex with donkeys. Don’t worry, Native American actor Taylor Lautner gets in on it, too. He’s playing a mentally handicapped Native American. Who disapproves? The Adam Sandler character, because this kind of comedy is typically used against actors of color. Here it’s Nasim Pedrad.
This approach of taking away the ability to act as the catalyst in her own comedy vehicle, or have agency in set-piece scenes? It doesn’t happen to male leads. It usually happens to women. Here it’s Nasim Pedrad.
I was looking for a crass comedy, but a good one, or at least one that managed not to be racist. Plenty of crass comedies manage this just fine. I think what I was looking for, too, was something that signaled a handing off of the baton. Comedians like Nasim Pedrad and Jenny Slate are positioned to be the next Sandler and Ferrell if they want to be, but not with films like this. If the director can’t even hand the baton to Pedrad, and expect her to be funny enough to carry a comedy, then how can we?
I’m not looking for great art when I turn on a movie like this. I’m looking for something where I can turn my brain off while I watch it. I’m not able to do that here because there are so many problems to it. And look, I can deal with problematic – just not to this level, or with this casualness and lack of some hint of accountability.
Without all of this shit, this could’ve been a good movie. What’s strange is that it feels like there’s a somewhat more intentional, more indie-style romantic comedy pulsing underneath all the dolphin dick and casual racism. It wouldn’t have been the crass comedy I was seeking out, but neither was this – and at least that would’ve been fulfilling.
The parts of that movie that stick out work primarily because of Pedrad and Morris. They often cut through the movie’s own bullshit and show you what could have been if the bulk of their work didn’t have to be dedicated to overcoming the mess that surrounds them. I wish the filmmakers had trusted what they had more in two incredibly charismatic and funny actors, their chemistry, and the talents of Camp and Burns to back them up.
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