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    Smoke and mirrors

    "Nicotina" is a wily if scattered Mexican caper movie involving diamonds, Swiss bank codes, Russian mobsters, unexpected connections and plenty of cigarettes.


    Obsessive love, greed, and rants about the dangers of cigarettes are at the heart and soul of "Nicotina." ("Nicotina" is Spanish for nicotine, the element in tobacco that causes addiction to cigarettes and apparently makes a good rodent poison.) Fans of chaos theory might enjoy watching the chain reactions in this screwball heist movie. How does a cockroach in Mexico affect the economy of Russia? The world of "Nicotina" is rather small, but the theory can be applied.

    Directed by: Hugo Rodríguez.
    Written by: Martín Salinas.
    Cast: Marta Belaustegui, Rosa María Bianchi, Lucas Crespi, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Rafael Inclán, Enoc LeaĖo, Diego Luna, Carmen Madrid, Jesús Ochoa.
    Cinematography: Marcelo Iaccarino.
    Edited by: Alberto de Toro.
    In Spanish with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Landmark Sunshine Cinema 143 East Houston St Loews 34th Street 312 W. 34th St.

    The film opens with the arrangements of a deal. Swiss bank account codes must be exchanged for 20 high-carat diamonds that should guarantee a life on easy street for all of the parties involved. The premise is simple, but as usual things are always easier said than done, especially, in an untrusting world. The only thing that runs smoothly in "Nicotina" is the tumble of the dominoes.

    Lolo (Diego Luna of "Y Tu Mamá Tambien") is a computer hacker who has the assignment of obtaining the security codes to Swiss bank accounts. He spies on his neighbor Andrea and uses her phone line and computer to do his dirty work as well as follow her sexual exploits. Lolo's obsession with Andrea blows up in his face and in turn affects his work, which in turns wreaks havoc with his partners in crime. However, "Nicotina" doesn't stop with how the odd turn of events affects the gangsters' lives. The local pharmacist, his wife, and the mom-and-pop barber shop owners get brought into the fray as well. The result is a dark escapade through Mexico City.

    The way the story follows the actions of one character that totally affect the actions and reactions of another character separated by 6 degrees or less is what makes "Nicotina" entertaining. "Nicotina" wants you to keep watching to see how the ball bounces. Not every gag is a humdinger, but they work and the point comes across. The movie also has a grim sense of humor that keeps things intriguing.

    What "Nicotina" does not do is make you cheer for a character. Its attention becomes so focused on the desires of one character that when the film's reality returns to the greater situation you aren't sure whom to root for or if you are supposed to root for anybody. Within each segment you identify and sympathize with one character, but as the story expands again you have to question which person deserves to have their dreams fulfilled. The filmmakers are aware of this and they let the events play out on their own and occasionally throw in their own hand of fate, God, or whatever into the mix.

    Unfortunately, there is an imbalance between the darkly humorous situations and the extreme passion of the characters that makes the film fall flat. The situations are a bit melodramatic so the humor gets lost — although the soundtrack tries to help the comedy along, the film doesn't tickle the funny bone the way it could. So at one point you might want love to save the day, or maybe it's better if the injured get patched up and get away scot-free. Or should the extremely poor get the riches? Who deserves it more and who is working hard enough to get it?

    "Nicotina" stands neutral — and that is the film's strength and its weakness, because you do sympathize greatly with each underdog character, but you have to be pulled away from the pathos and watch the game unfold. You are the fly on the wall with zoom-lens vision that allows you to focus on what might be important and consider how that might lead to the next point. This way, in the end when everything falls apart and the pieces are being picked up, you realize that all is right with the world — it's just not wrapped up with a nice bow tied around it. "Nicotina" is wrapped neatly enough but is given to you with a wry smirk.

    If you enjoy foreign films and want to see what was a hit in Mexico — garnering six Ariel Awards (the Mexican equivalent of the American Academy Awards) — you'll probably want to check out "Nicotina." If you have a preference for recent American gangster films and heist movies you might be disappointed. "Nicotina" is stylish, but it isn't superslick like "Snatch," "Bound" or "2 Days in the Valley." And if you are into the swirl and want to see a foreign film that is also a gangster film, "Nicotina" is no "City of God."

    AUGUST 20, 2004

    Reader comments on Nicotina:

  • [no subject]   from Amber Rogers, Feb 21, 2007
  • NICOTINA   from Paul Jones, Apr 10, 2009

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