Son of the Bride opens with a young boy discovering that his ball has been slashed apart in the shape of a Z. Looking up, he sees the culprit, Zorro, or rather, a pint-sized facsimile. The Zorro-wannabe unleashes a stone from his slingshot that knocks the kid down, humiliating him in front of his friends. Together, they give chase after the crude impersonator, Rafael Belvedere. Rafael can barely keep his Zorro hat on his head before he trips and begins receiving a beating. Cue his best friend, Juan Carlos, who shows up just in time to save him, and they run home screaming for mommy.
Forward to the present, and Rafael (Ricardo Darin) is 42-years old and runs the family Italian restaurant in Argentina. Dealing with suppliers and the expense of mascarpone in tiramisu, his life is lived from one cell phone call to the next. His one-time savior mother, Norma (Norma Aleandro), now suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home.His father, Nino (Hector Alterio), hatches a scheme to remarry her in a church as she had always wanted. Nino is disappointed by Rafael’s pleas about the expense and that Norma won’t even be aware of what is going on. Rafael’s ex-wife, Sandra (Claudia Fontan), hassles him about being a better father to their daughter, Victoria (Gimena Nobile), and he also has trouble keeping up with his young, gorgeous girlfriend, Nati (Natalia Verbeke). Making his life even more hectic, his old friend, Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco), returns after a long absence sporting a tragic revelation. Then Rafael has an experience that makes him re-examine his life completely and he considers dropping out and moving to Mexico.
Up until this point, Son of the Bride, is quick on its feet, breezes with zippy dialogue, and presents little details with meaningfulness that belie their brevity. The latter includes Norma calling her son a rascal in the most gentle and loving tone imaginable; Nati’s eyes as Rafael interrupts their time together to pick up yet another phone call; little Victoria playing with the retainer in her mouth. From there, Son of the Bride descends into sheer melodrama. A first swerve towards sentimentality quickly becomes a plunge into outright sappiness.
Writer Fernando Castets and co-writer/director Juan Jose Campanella manufacture a fight between Darin and Nati just because the movie calls for Rafael’s life to fall apart. Only in the movies do unhandsome 42-year old men drop young, perfect girlfriends with model looks instead of clinging onto them like life rafts. The movie turns into Darin’s guilt over his past – how he abandoned law school only to reluctantly take up the family business as a restaurateur. Now seeking redemption in his mother’s eyes, he finds her barely capable of even recognizing him. Will he sell the restaurant? Is his life better modeled after corporate efficiency or with personal clutter?
Even the jokes become more forced as the movie progresses. For no good reason, Juan Carlos, now an actor, drags Rafael to a film shoot to tell him a secret. They end up as extras and get into a fight in the background of the shoot. This not unfunny scene could have been charming but comes across as contrived. Just as forced is the symbolism. A pair of glasses Rafael owns becomes an overbearing metaphor.
Yet just when the movie is about to turn into a third-rate It’s a Wonderful Life, it starts to redeem itself. The way a professional wrestler half-beaten to death gets a second wind, Son of the Bride seemingly wills itself into good graces through the sheer power of the performances. Ricardo Darin also stars in the soon-to-be-released Nine Queens. (Argentina made a wise choice in picking Son of the Bride over the empty, over-praised Nine Queens for its Academy Award submission.) While Darin lacks charisma and cannot quite carry Son of the Bride on his shoulders, he absolutely nails Rafael’s character arc with convincing precision.
Hector Alterio is perfectly suited for the role of Rafael’s father, displaying compassion and understanding; if only the script did not give him some really disagreeable scenes – one a maudlin monologue and another of him phoning old friends while being unsure whether they are still alive. Norma Aleandro escapes such embarrassment with the script. The consummate veteran, Aleandro milks the role with relish playing an uncouth yet lovable foul-mouth with the excuse that she’s lost her marbles. Eduardo Blanco looks and, God-forbid, acts like a balding Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful), but he works as the comedic sidekick (even Benigni is tolerable in small doses). Then there is Natalia Verbeke. Looking like a cross between Emmanuelle Devos (My Sex Life or How I Got Into an Argument) and Penelope Cruz (Vanilla Sky), Verbeke captivates not only through her beauty but as well through her ability to completely inhabit her role. A scene with Verbeke in a hospital has the camera stay on her face throughout a monologue by Darin. In extreme close-up, her face ever so slowly crumples into disappointment, and she pulls it off without a hint of self-consciousness.
Ultimately, Son of the Bride is still pretty silly, but better silly than too serious. For a man, it is a terrific date movie if you’re not afraid of a touch of moisture welling up in your eye by the end. Son of the Bride is not a great movie, but it is a great melodrama.