My Big Love (Jade Castro, 2008)
One of my favorite films from 2007 is Jade Castro's Endo, a lovely little romance between two contractual workers who are struggling to find meaning in the demeaning world of tentative jobs and ambitions. The fantastic thing about Endo is that Castro was able to render a genuinely affecting story within the bounds of a traditional narrative. Castro did not belabor the political subtexts of his film and instead grounds itself on the human elements of his characters' struggles like their wavering hopes and dreams in the midst of a dehumanizing social system, the staggered relationships that naturally fade along with the employment contracts, their dependent families who have their own demons to wrestle with. As a result, Endo transcends the bounds of its traditionally romantic narrative and becomes something more pertinent --- a hopeful but melancholic portrait of the 21st century Filipino working class.
My Big Love, Castro's sophomore feature is set in what feels like a fantasy world where both the poor and the rich are happy, hopeful, and at peace. This is the exact opposite of the world of Endo where the debilitating routine of switching from one job to another seem to drain vitality and sense of humanity from the oppressed working class; the clear oppressors of whom are the upper class and their business motives. Of course, there is no point in seeking depth in a film that is crafted for plain escapism but the complete turn-around from Castro is quite startling and disappointing especially after the successes of his debut feature. Castro however is no stranger to the glossy excesses of mainstream cinema, having penned several of Star Cinema's purely commercial films like First Day High (Mario Cornejo, 2006) and D'Anothers (Joyce Bernal, 2005). The curious thing about My Big Love is that it is not only directed by Jade Castro, but is also co-written by Michiko Yamamoto (along with Theodore Boborol), screenwriter of two of arguably the best Filipino films of recent years Magnifico (Maryo delos Reyes, 2003) and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Auraeus Solito, 2005). With such proven talents, one can only expect greatness or the very least, a tinge of innovativeness.
Of course, My Big Love is first and foremost, a studio product. It exists with a single primary purpose: to make profit by entertaining the masses. Formula assures that the purpose is fulfilled while suffocating creativity. As it turns out, My Big Love exists purely to be disposable entertainment notwithstanding the able talents attached to the project. The movie is about the budding romance between Macky (Sam Milby) and Aira (Toni Gonzaga). Macky is an obese chef who is embarrassingly dumped by Niña (Kristine Hermosa), the girl of his dreams whom he woos through chatting but eventually disappoints upon their first awkward meeting. He turns to Aira, a personal trainer, to lose weight in the hopes of winning Niña back. As it turns out, he starts falling in love with Aira, who unfortunately is leaving for Japan to earn extra income to sustain her family. When Aira comes back from Japan, Macky has already lost a great deal of weight thus earning the perfect physique that would please Niña, who is now his girlfriend.
The first half of My Big Love is actually pretty good. Most of the humor in the film range from slapstick to lowbrow fun, with most of the jokes aimed at Macky's looks and size. Some are guiltily hilarious, such as when Aira's mother (Malou de Guzman), a pedicab driver, struggles to drive Macky up a slope. Others are plainly corny, such as the needless MTV-like montage of Macky and Aira training, prompting a cute but slightly annoying choreographed dance number inside a grocery store. The unabashedly insensitive humor is tempered by the way Castro shrouds Macky, obviously molded by the screenwriters as the formulaic lovable underdog, with an unguarded vulnerability that is genuinely affecting. Surprisingly, Milby, who dons prosthetics and a fat suit to make it look like he weighs 300 pounds, renders a performance that exudes a heartfelt sensitivity which is uncharacteristic for the model-turned-actor who usually gets away with boring performances by his matinee idol good looks.
While the film succumbs in filling up the screen with perfunctory details that exist purely to forward the film's commercial thrust, it is actually during the silent moments wherein we get a hint of honesty underneaeth all the film's capitalistic trappings. Moments like Aira's sudden embrace (most probably out of pity, but still genuinely a good moment) or Macky and Aira's quiet parting after their histrionically melodramatic parting in the airport (with Castro's camera still in a perceptive wide shot, with the two characters going different ways, stealing final and unsure glances of each other) are all indelible marks that although the film is purely junkfood, the person sitting as director has both a working brain and a big heart.
Unfortunately, once Macky loses his weight halfway through the movie, things suddenly become severely uninteresting. Without the prosthetics and the fat suit, Macky morph into a completely unrecognizable character who is far less convincing, far less lovable. Macky lost his underdog status for that legitimate leading man status characterized by good looks and success, he turns into the quintessential cardboard character, boring and emotionally flat. The requirements of the studio-financed rom-com formula overtakes both creativity and logic. This isn't exactly Castro's proudest moment as the second half of the movie feels rushed (haphazardly edited to fit in both the required romantic moments and plot movers within the remaining time) and dull. Similarly exposed are the inconsistencies in Yamamoto and Boborol's screenplay, with both logic and character consistency thrown out the window for convenience's sake. Ultimately, My Big Love is big in promise and small in delivery.