Unfortunately, “How to Be a Latin Lover” tries to cover too much ground and bulk up its scrawny farcical concept with flaccid sub-plots. It’s unfortunate because the core story surrounding Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez as an aging gigolo with a heart of gold is sufficiently fit.
Derbez brings warmth and intermittent goofy humor to this too-broad and uneven comedy. The best moments are between him and co-stars Salma Hayek and young Raphael Alejandro, who both have an easy chemistry with Derbez. One of the highlights is seeing Derbez and Hayek slip in and out of Spanish and English in their conversations, as bilingual people do.
A comedy phenomenon in Mexico, Derbez became known to American English-speaking audiences with 2013’s “Instructions Not Included,” the highest-grossing Spanish-language film released in the U.S. While his command of English is excellent and his physical comedy is notable, his most appealing moments are when he’s speaking Spanish with the Mexican-born Hayek. As siblings Maximo and Sara, their bond feels its most natural when they bicker, fight or kid around in their native language.
The plot is a simple one, as directed by Ken Marino. (The comic actor, known for appearances in “Party Down” and “In a World,” among many credits, makes his feature debut as a filmmaker.) It kicks into gear once we get past the one-dimensional, unlikable, clueless kept man who Derbez initially plays.
Maximo and Sara are young children when their hard-working truck driver father falls asleep at the wheel, driving into their home and rendering them both fatherless and homeless. This dark edgy beginning doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie, leaving audiences unsettled and unsmiling. The father’s flaming death is played to comic effect and doesn’t work as a cosmic joke, with their mom weeping in the background.
What works better slightly better is what Maximo and Sara talk about in the next scene: what they want to be when they grow up. Sara wants to be an architect so she can build their family a new house. Maximo is looking at a magazine ad with a beautiful young woman and wealthy older man surrounded by finery. He says he wants to be her. No, he’s not transgender: He aspires to be a gold-digger.
Fast forward a decade and there’s handsome twentysomething Maximo poolside in bright yellow speedos at a resort for the very wealthy. He works his sexy-time magic on Peggy (Renee Taylor), a buxom, bejeweled older woman. Cut to 25 years later, and they’re sleeping side by side in a fancy bedroom. He’s middle-aged and Peggy is well into her dotage. Maximo checks each morning to make sure she’s still breathing. And the movie’s still not very funny.
Maximo takes Peggy to buy his anniversary gift to her: a bright orange McLaren sports car that’s clearly for him. Their young car salesman (Michael Cera) takes note of the magnanimity of Maximo’s sugar mama.
Shortly thereafter, the younger car salesman has taken his coveted gigolo’s spot in the mansion. Maximo is out on his ear and seeks shelter at the home of Sara and her brainy, 10 year old son Hugo (Alejandro). He hasn’t seen his sister in years, didn’t visit his dying mother and calls his young nephew by the wrong name. There’s not much to like about Maximo.
Before landing on their doorstep he appeals to his best pal, fellow middle-aged boy-toy (Rob Lowe) who is exhausted by the lovemaking demands of his kinky benefactor Millicent (Linda Lavin). Lowe is not at his funniest here, but even mediocre Lowe is funnier than most. Lowe and Derbez have affable chemistry and the payoff comes later in a loopy scene in which they compete over the affections of Raquel Welch as Celeste, an extremely wealthy — and extremely well-maintained — septuagenarian.
The film begins as a laugh-free naughty comedy and morphs into a sweetly amusing story of the value of family ties. There are some funny bits sprinkled throughout. But it’s Derbez’s charm that keeps the film afloat.
Maximo has some odd, but humorous, moments with Cindy (Kristen Bell), a daffy cat lady who works in a yogurt shop. Less funny are his interactions with Rob Corddry (who plays Welch’s chauffeur) or Rob Riggle and Rob Huebel (as a pair of lunkheads of whom he runs afoul). Maybe too many Robs spoil the pot? In any case, too much time is spent on these humorless subplots.
Hayek overacts some, particularly in English. In Spanish she’s funnier. When the two argue in Spanish or discuss her romantic interest in a neighbor, both are at their comic best and the dialogue feels the most natural and convincing.
It doesn’t take much for Maximo to endear himself to the sweetly nerdy Hugo by coaching him in the arts of winning over women. Little Hugo has a crush on a classmate and, conveniently, the little girl also happens to be Celeste’s granddaughter. Clearly Maximo’s lessons in stud muffin-ery don’t come from a selfless place.
Still, Maximo grows more likable as the film goes on. His moments with the adorable and talented young Alejandro are sweetly endearing, and avoid cloying sentimentality.