Bossa Nova (review)

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Love’s a Beach

The lovesick round-robin — Joe loves Mary, Mary loves Bill, and Bill loves someone else — is a fairly standard plot for romantic comedies, but it feels freshly deployed in director Bruno Barreto’s light and airy Bossa Nova. Set amongst the palm trees and sandy beaches of Rio de Janeiro, this bittersweet story follows a series of flirtatious entanglements between Brazilians and ex-pat and visiting Americans, most of whom have given up on love but find themselves persuaded to give the relationship game one more try.

Mary Ann (Amy Irving) — an American and former flight attendant living in Rio since her Brazilian husband, an airline pilot, died — works as an English teacher, and seems to spend most of the rest of her time swimming in the ocean, which is right outside her beachside apartment. Her student and friend Nadine (Drica Moraes) has “met” the man of her dreams over the Internet — Gary, a New York artist, lives in a Soho loft and has waist-length hair, he says — and she tries to convince Mary Ann to give online romance a try. Mary Ann only laughs away the suggestion, and she does indeed seem content on her own. But we know that she pines for her dead husband.
Pedro (Antonio Fagundes), a lawyer, hasn’t been fortunate in the romance department, either. His divorce from Tania (Debora Bloch) is barely final before she’s living with her handsome tai-chi teacher, Wan-Kim-Lau (Kazuo Matsui). This brand of bad luck seems to run in his family: his father, Juan (Alberto de Mendoza), a tailor, has been left penniless after his split from his “latest wife”; his half-brother Roberto (Pedro Cardoso) has fallen hard for Pedro’s new law intern, Sharon (Giovanna Antonelli), who doesn’t seem to realize Roberto exists. But perhaps things are looking up for Pedro: after a chance encounter with Mary Ann, it’s love at first site, and he signs up for one of her English classes to be near her.

This is where things start to get a bit sitcom-ish, with unlikely coincidences piled atop one another: One of Mary Ann’s private students is the celebrated football star Acacio (Alexandre Borges), who has been sold to the football team in Manchester, England, and needs to learn how to swear at his new British opponents in their native language. Acacio is the reason Sharon ignores Roberto: she was instantly smitten with the good-looking footballer the moment he walked into Pedro’s law office, looking for help with his new contract. When the shine starts to wear off Nadine’s new relationship with Wan-Kim-Lau, she starts looking at her ex, Pedro, with new appreciation… but she doesn’t realize that, in her job as a travel agent, she has been helping the best friend of her ex’s new love interest — that is, Nadine, Mary Ann’s pal — book a trip to New York to meet her online love. But before Nadine can get away, Trevor (Stephen Tobolowsky), aka “Gary,” arrives in Rio for a meeting with Pedro — he’s not an artist, needless to say, but an accountant. And then Pedro ends up mistakenly thinking that Mary Ann is the one in love with Trevor.

Yikes. The charming cast helps the film get away with it all, and the film never feels as contrived as it sounds. The sweetly melancholy Mary Ann anchors the story in a semblance of reality, and it’s no wonder that Barreto’s story (the screenplay is by Alexandre Machado and Fernanda Young) and camera linger so lovingly on her — he’s married to Irving, after all. On the whole, though, Bossa Nova is like a casual vacation fling, when an exotic locale and a holiday from everyday life predisposes you to romance: It’s fun while it lasts, but you’ve pretty much forgotten it by the time you get home.

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