by Alfonso Rivera
- Radical originality and lack of indulgence in this Spanish debut feature which explores humiliation with a harshness that sets it apart from the usual romantic comedies
Centred on a character who doesn’t change (because Borja Cobeaga believes in resistance to change), and involving a descent into hell like a personal exorcism for the director and some secondary characters who don’t serve as a foil to the protagonist, but as a pathetic reflection of himself, The Friend Zone [+see also:
interview: Borja Cobeaga
film profile] is an enjoyable surprise. For Cobeaga has dared to do away with some of the golden rules of good screenwriting in his debut work, and this boldness earned him two prizes (Critics Award and Best New Screenwriter) at the 8th Malaga Spanish Film Festival.
Moreover, The Friend Zone revives the Spanish comedy genre and, above all, raises peals of laughter from audiences, whilst still appealing to their intelligence… although these smiles may end up turning into grimaces.
The reason for this is simple: at any time during the film, viewers may easily identify with the anti-hero protagonist, a character whom Cobeaja mercilessly humiliates, places in ridiculous situations and pushes to the limits of the pathetic, thus raising laughter in the audience.
This is exactly what Ricky Gervais does in his wonderful series Extras and The Office and is also reminiscent of contemporary young comedies by Judd Apatow, who also turns the tender aspects of everyday life into pathetic and laughable moments.
But Cobeaga is even more cruel (and less conservative in his message). While giving a feverish, almost cartoon-like rhythm to his film, showing that since childhood he was fed on the best Hollywood screwball comedy, he follows the example of bitter humour in admired fellow director Alexander Payne’s work and enters the realm of fantasy and even horror in some brilliant sequences that pay homage to The Shining, Barton Fink and Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Chema (Gorka Otxoa, a regular on TV sitcoms) is the anti-hero of this hilarious but painful emotional journey. He is a 30-something Bilbaoan who thinks Claudia (Sabrina Garciarena), an attractive and sexy Argentinean girl, is the woman of his dreams, and he’ll do anything to please her: from the completely ridiculous to the pathetic.
She sees him as the perfect friend, but is absolutely not sexually attracted to him. However, Chema desires her so much that, despite himself, he gets drawn into a spiral of humiliation from which he can’t escape.
Cobeaga and his co-screenwriter Diego San José have imagined the cruellest ways to punish the protagonist, and his continual degradation makes viewers feel embarrassed for him. Moreover, a fake, 1980s-style educational documentary narrated in Russian, explaining the behaviour of animals and their similarities with humans when it comes to mating, adds even greater irony to this bold film.
Before such a spectacle, as viewers we have two options: enjoy its brazenness and its protagonist’s bad luck, or let ourselves be submerged by our frustration at feeling victimised. Our smile freezes on our faces when we realise we’re laughing at something we shouldn’t really find amusing. But in the end, the fact that Cobeaga makes us laugh at serious matters is the best antidote to depression in these times of crisis.
(Translated from Spanish)