‘Rotting in the Sun’ Review: Misanthropic Satire Misses Its Targets

Sundance 2023: Director Sebastián Silva and comedian Jordan Firstman play “themselves” as awful creeps, but in this muddled comedy, it might not be an act

Rotting in the Sun
"Rotting in the Sun" (Credit: Sundance Institute)

The aptly titled “Rotting in the Sun” is a misanthropic comedy-mystery that pits writer-director-actor Sebastián Silva against Instagram influencer–comedian Jordan Firstman, both of whom are playing themselves or versions of themselves. Silva and Firstman both come across very poorly on screen, but it is difficult to ascertain just how intentional that is.

Silva is first seen in the Plaza Río de Janeiro in Mexico City reading Emil Cioran’s “The Trouble with Being Born,” and he googles his own name and then immediately googles “How to commit suicide in Mexico” before going home to a large studio where he lives and paints. Catalina Saavedra, who played the lead in Silva’s breakout feature “The Maid,” here plays Silva’s real-life maid Vero while Silva’s friend Mateo, who owns the building he is living in, plays himself.

Silva is seen snorting cocaine and listlessly feeling sorry for himself, and he asks Mateo, “What was Scorsese’s last film?” Mateo says he doesn’t know, and Silva answers, “You see? No one cares.” Mateo treats Silva with weary contempt and suggests that he go to a gay nude beach and get laid; Silva goes but brings his gloomy Cioran book along with him. The camera takes in nude males from Silva’s point of view, and the vibe is very disgusted and self-loathing yet tired.

Silva has said that he based his interactions with Firstman on an actual meeting they had, and if Firstman behaved anything like he behaves here — aggressively fawning over Silva but also hurling contempt at him — then Silva is expressing not just self-loathing but also masochism in wanting to re-live this interaction, not to mention sadism in inflicting it on the audience.

Firstman plays this version of himself as vapid, obnoxious, and so hostile and controlling that he actually slaps Silva fairly hard in the face in the midst of his constant stream of talk; he is in permanent networking mode, a nasty social-media barnacle who will never let go.

One of the nude men on the beach praises Firstman’s “content,” and Silva looks at actual Firstman content and shakes his head at it. Silva starts to insult Firstman on their next meeting, but his vocal delivery is so slow and Firstman’s is so fast that he doesn’t stand a chance in a scene with him. “Laugh!” Firstman finally cries. “Laugh! Why don’t you like me?”

A question like that could be touching or revealing or funny, but “Rotting in the Sun” is so lost in Silva’s solipsistic and wishy-washy negativity that nothing gets shaped. If you’re going to be as negative as Silva is being in this movie, then you need to go all the way with it and be extremely negative and specific. The only thing here that he really makes repulsive is hardcore gay sex, which is portrayed as mechanistic and gross, with no joy and no eroticism.

A little less than halfway through “Rotting in the Sun,” a murder plot of sorts kicks in, and we are left in the last hour of the movie with scene after scene in which Firstman interrogates Vero via the faulty automatic translation app on his phone, while she is depicted as no angel herself. And yet, when she breaks down and cries, it feels far more real or pressing than any of Silva’s ennui or Firstman’s desperate bids for attention.

Silva has taken experiences from his own life for “Rotting in the Sun” in an attempt to dramatize or satirize things about the current culture that he hates, but his hate is so all-consuming yet so strangely mild that he misses most of the targets he is aiming for.

“Rotting in the Sun” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.