Clever is not only the title of this Uruguayan comedy-drama, but also the name of its protagonist. Unfortunately, he does not really live up to his name. He is a man with strange priorities. He loves his car, and protects it on occasion with a special cover against the weather, or against his own sweat by covering the whole driver’s seat with a bin liner when necessary. The situation is similar with his toy car collection, which his son is allowed to look at but not to touch. As he used to drive a manky old car up until his divorce, one is tempted to assume that he devotes to his new car now all the love and tenderness that his ex-wife had rejected, thus filling a void. He also practises (and teaches) martial arts (Sib Pal Gi), which we can assume was originally a way of dealing with his anger management issues, which we know he was – and to a certain degree still is – suffering from. Weight-lifting and drug-taking also belong to his strange array of habits, both of which he shares with his buddy Mario.
The film presents us Clever and Mario as men who are stuck in a developmental cul-de-sac. “Emotionally stunted growth” I believe the fashionable term is. They are behaving like adolescents, with their tuned cars, gym-obsession, drug antics, and visits to dance clubs. (Not only are both of them horrible dancers, they are also clearly too old for that scene.)
Clever and Mario, it becomes quite clear, do see their behaviour not so much as adolescent but as manly. So while this is a film about growing up (or not growing up), it is also about manliness and the difficulty to define it.
Clever loves his son, but his son is not much like him. He prefers fried chicken to protein shakes and is a bit of a couch potato with limited athletic aptitude. The two things we know they have in common are an interest in video games and a love for tuned cars. So, in order to impress his son, Clever goes on a quest to find a talented but mysterious artist to spray-paint his car with some sort of flame decor. This quest leads him from the city into the countryside, where the people he encounters get weirder and weirder.
A great source for comedy, but it is this moment at which the film starts to lose its plot a bit. Manliness is still a big theme here, but we do not know what Clever learns, or if he learns anything. At the end of his journey he does not seem the wiser – and neither are we. It is strangely unsatisfying, because quests of this kind usually have a cathartic function in films, leading to some kind of change. But in this film it seems the writing and directing duo (Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiroto) are determined to emphasise the absence of change. So, while this is surely a deliberate artistic choice, the result is that it all feels a bit unfinished and inconclusive, as if the script would have needed some more work.
Clever has a great cast, with Hugo Piccinini shining in the title role. By nature a thin and lanky man, he did a lot of physical training in order to be a better match for this role of a gym-obsessed martial arts teacher. It is unfortunate that the script and the narrative could not entirely live up to Piccinini’s talents.
The kid actor they got to play his son (Santiago Agüero) is also very good, as is the actor who plays Mario. But the two of them do not have that much screen time. The two people with the most important supporting roles are the artist and his mother, both beautifully portrayed. Especially the artist, a delicate soul trapped inside a weightlifter’s body. Fittingly, this character is played by real-life body-building professional Antonio Osta. It is funny to see the artist’s interaction with his domineering mother (Marta Grané), with both of them having their own interpretations of art and of manliness.
Clever is an entertaining comedy-drama which has a marked weird streak to it; so much so that one can readily assume that not everyone will enjoy it. For me, it is a 6.5 out of 10. It is definitely not of the same quality as the remarkable 23 Seconds, also with Piccinini in the leading role.