When I watched the trailer for Gringo, I thought this was going to be a funny movie and I am always up for a good comedy. Not only is David Oyelowo a great actor but I was looking forward to him playing a hapless American in trouble in Mexico. The cast looked great, the plot intriguing and most of all, it looked fun. I was happy to find out that it was exactly what I’d hoped, with twists and turns that takes the character to unexpected heights of humor.
Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a good man, a man who follows the rules, like his father taught him. He works in middle management for a pharmaceutical company that has developed a “weed pill”, simplifying medical marijuana into pill form. Harold is in debt thanks to his wife, Bonnie (Thandie Newton) but he isn’t worried, until his bosses, Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) accompany him on a trip to Mexico. While they leave to return to Chicago, he stays to complete work at the production plant.
Meanwhile schemes are going on behind Harold’s back. Harold goes from one outrageous situation after another, from being kidnapped by a drug cartel who are angry at his bosses to learning secrets about his home back in Chicago. Richard hires a professional, Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to help Harold but the train wreck of events continue. Even when helped by a young woman, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), Harold can’t stay out of trouble as he attempts to survive his time in Mexico.
Obviously in a comedy, if you don’t have laughter, you don’t have a film. There are a couple ways the director Nash Edgerton uses humor in original ways to make this movie funnier than I expected. The first is in how much of a trainwreck it is and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it in how everything keeps derailing for Harold over and over. Every time he thinks he’s figured out a solution, something else goes wrong. You keep rooting for him but you also find yourself laughing as he goes from one hilarious escapade after another. At one point, the entire theater broke out into laughter. That level of humor is rare.
And it’s not just the things going wrong for Harold and how he reacts. It’s how everything goes wrong for everyone. Both Richard and Elaine are trying to get their product marketed but the situation with Harold could ruin their efforts. Each of them react to the events in different ways. Elaine wants to figure out a way to buy off Harold’s kidnappers. Richard sends Mitch. Meanwhile, Elaine also vamps potential buyers, keeping them busy and interested in the company. Every time they think they have it figured out, though, something else happens to throw them off balance. This is the kind of comedy that will keep you laughing after the film is over.
It’s not just the jokes that work. There is some predictability to the plot but it is in the timing and the comedy beats that the writers keep things off kilter, giving us unexpected twists and turns in the story. Nothing ever quite ends up happening at the exact moment you expect it to and the unpredictability keeps the film interesting.
Given that this is billed as a dark comedy, there are also some points where the story delves into insights into both the characters and how society works. It digs into how Harold’s decency ends up working against him or at least his expectation that others will treat him with the same respect that he treats them. The insight into the morality of the different characters builds an interesting story. There is also a lot of commentary on big pharmaceutical companies (yes, some of them do work just like in the movie) and also in how corporations work, both in using cheap out of the country labor and how some companies treat their employees.
I love that the writers give us three dimensional characters for the most part. Harold is built in the details. We are shown his character as soon as he walks on screen, taking his wife’s dog for a walk in the snow, his belief in his company and his friends and how he brings food for his driver in Mexico, his kindness toward the employees at the Mexico plant. These are the kind of details that make you fall in love with the character and root for him. We get that same level of attention on Elaine, one tiny scene building her backstory without feeling like it’s just dumped into the movie. The drug dealer loves the Beatles, for example. Even how one character walks and carries himself gives away information to the observant viewer.
David Oyelowo is quite simply amazing, the heart and soul of the film. His expressive acting and ability to charm are what build the humor. Every scene he is in, he keeps your attention on his character, playing him both highly intelligent but so focused on what he should be doing that he misses information. Charlize Theron is another standout, with her playing Elaine as manipulative and vampy, yet strong and without filters. Sharlto Copley is another standout performance, his interactions with David Oyelowo dynamic and magnetic. Nash Edgerton manages to balance his directing with his acting, keeping his character humorous and engaging even though he’s working on the other elements of the film. Even smaller characters, like Alan Ruck of Ferris Bueller fame, did a fantastic job with their parts.
There are a few elements that do miss, though. The first is that the film does take a long time to set up, giving us scenes that might not be as crucial to the story. While they do help build characterization, it does slow the pacing in the beginning of the movie. I did find it was important, helping the viewer to understand just why Harold misses so much around him. Building the characters does make it easier to predict certain events but I do believe that aids the comedic bits.
The other issue was the lack of development of Amanda Seyfried’s character. You get tiny glimpses but I feel like she was way underutilized and other than one major scene with Harold, doesn’t really get the opportunity to do more than follow around one of the other characters. She and Harry Treadaway as Miles don’t get used nearly enough in the movie. I also felt that even though most of the rest of the characters were not stereotypical, Richard felt like he was a caricature of a rich corporate raider type. I would have liked a bit more information about his character. It might have been intentional to aid the humor but I would have liked a bit more information about his character.
Overall, this was a quirky farcical romp that kept me entertained. I liked that we got to root for the underdog and the ending of the film, while a bit predictable, was karmic. The acting by everyone was incredible but especially David Oyelowo, who I now must see in more movies and will have to track down his other work. I suggest this for viewers who like messy, chaotic humor with unexpected endings. I know the random bits were my favorite part.
Rating: 4 stars
An exhilarating mix of dark comedy, white-knuckle action and dramatic intrigue, Gringo joyrides into Mexico, where mild-mannered businessman Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) finds himself at the mercy of back-stabbing business colleagues back home, local drug lords and a morally conflicted black-ops mercenary. Crossing the line from law-abiding citizen to wanted criminal, Harold battles to survive his increasingly dangerous situation in ways that raise the question: Is he out of his depth — or two steps ahead?
Starring: David Oyelowo, Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton and Sharlto Copley
Directed by: Nash Edgerton