You’re Killing Me Susana is a film that relishes its low stakes with self-awareness.
You’re Killing Me Susana is a film that relishes its low stakes with self-awareness, resulting in lots of laughs, a skin-deep deconstruction of stereotypical Mexican machismo and a surprisingly poignant meta-commentary on what it means to be charming and attractive. Without ever taking itself too seriously or trying too hard, the film finds ways to speak against U.S. cultural and political domination, patriarchy and the performative inauthenticity of the way people interact with each other.
Eligio (Gael García Bernal) is a fledging actor who tries to balance being a serious artist with the financial reality that he must appear in soap operas and commercials in order to pay his bills. But really, he does not come across as too stressed. He mostly drinks, flirts and relies on his undeniable good looks to get by. His wife, Susana (Verónica Echegui), is a literature teacher and struggling novelist. She also is not quite so taken by Eligio’s profligacy and charisma as is everyone else. In fact, one morning Eligio awakes to find that she has abandoned him without a word or trace.
Eligio eventually tracks Susana to the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, where she has reported as a single woman and is working on scholarship to complete her debut novel. She is also having a sexual affair with a Polish poet (a sentence that sounds much funnier in the film’s Spanish than in this review’s English). Eligio has hilarious run-ins with both Customs and Border Patrol and campus security and crashes a campus party before finally reuniting with the estranged Susana.
The film’s second act loses the kinetic energy of the globe-trotting first act but remains light, funny and reliant on the physical gifts of its cast. Bernal is never better than when playing an airhead, and You’re Killing Me Susana just winds him up and lets him go. He gets in a rock fight with a man a foot taller than him, drunkenly shouts bawdy stories in nonsensical mixtures of English and Spanish and provides a handful of one-liners about the gringos surrounding him in Iowa.
But he does not show enough personal growth for Susana. To start the third act, she flees in the middle of the night again. The climax comes with more laughs—put Eligio in snow and the jokes write themselves—but it also makes good on the tension within Eligio and Susana’s marriage. They part ways, he returning to Mexico City and she continuing as an itinerant writer. As is the convention in a classic romantic comedy, Eligio’s personal crisis is transformational for him. He gives up the soaps and commercials and becomes the true thespian he had always envisioned himself becoming. He even begins to resemble a mature and responsible adult.
In its culminating moments, You’re Killing Me Susana, while remaining playful, reveals its overarching moral. It is a subtle, yet eventually quite powerful, story about the privilege of being beautiful. Eligio is gorgeous and so is Susana, so they can too easily drift through life without committing to other people or even their own artistic passions. The film makes this claim through meta-filmmaking; the movie, itself, was too easy because of the unceasing charm of its protagonists, who can lead the audience along through cascades of hijinks and laughs by simply looking pretty. What is left once this becomes apparent is a rather banal romance tale, but a self-aware onee so enjoyable that most viewers will surely forgive the the writing and direction for coasting on the power of its movie stars.