Tony Manero

After watching EL CONDE, I was reminded that Pablo Larraín was also the director of TONY MANERO, a movie I’d always wondered about where a guy is obsessed with John Travolta’s character from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. I think I even considered watching it back when I reviewed SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and STAYING ALIVE last summer, but it didn’t pan out until now.

It’s from 2008, and it’s Larraín’s second film, following FUGA (2006). And watching it plays as kind of a distant cousin to EL CONDE in that it’s a distinct mix of the creepy and the absurd, plays off of movie iconography in strange ways, is not a fan of Chile’s tyrannical past, and is not easily classifiable. It’s basically a character study about a guy named Raúl who dreams of being the best Tony Manero impersonator in Santiago, and also sometimes kills people. Mostly the former, though, honestly. I’ve seen plot summaries that describe him as a serial killer, which is technically true, but this doesn’t play like a serial killer movie. Killing is not where he puts most of his energy.

Somehow I didn’t catch on that Raúl is played by the same actor who played the butler Fyodor in EL CONDE, Alfredo Castro, who’s also credited as writer along with Mateo Irabarren and Larraín. Raúl is scary in a different way than Fyodor, and much of the time I’m not sure he’s even that scary. He’s more of a pathetic loser than anything, even after we know what he’s done. Sometimes I’d get wrapped up in his single-minded pursuit of extremely small-time glory and almost forget he was a psycho.

We first meet him at the TV station where he thinks he’s one of the contestants in a Tony Manero imitator contest. The other guys look suspiciously like Chuck Norris though, and it turns out he’s a week early. All he does is ask a few questions and fill out paperwork, but still manages to be weird about it.

It’s the late ‘70s, and his favorite movie (which he sometimes just calls “FEVER”) is still playing in a local theater. It’s lucky that nobody’s really going anymore, because they’d be annoyed that he tearfully repeats all the lines out loud. Later the theater switches over to GREASE, and the box office lady tells him yeah, we don’t have FEVER anymore, but this has the same guy. He watches a few minutes before walking out, disgusted. He doesn’t want John Travolta. He wants Tony Manero.

He lives in a boarding house with his girlfriend Cony (Amparo Noguera, A FANTASTIC WOMAN), her young son Tomás (Nicolás Mosso), her adult daughter Pauli (Paola Lattus, TOO LATE TO DIE YOUNG) and her boyfriend Goyo (Héctor Morales, MY LAST ROUND). Every day they practice a dance routine on a tiny, rickety stage. Though the younger generation wants to do something else, Raúl has pushed them into this disco routine based on the movie, and keeps talking about his white suit he’s going to wear, but he refuses to try it on yet. He’s saving that for the big day when they do their act for the tiny little restaurant here.

One day when he’s in his underwear smoking he sees some guys on the street hassling an old lady, making her drop her groceries. He runs out there, helps her up, walks her home. The more she thanks him and he doesn’t respond the more you think “Oh, fuck.” She lets him sit and watch TV with her, she asks “Did you know General Pinochet has blue eyes?” But suddenly Raúl beats her to death with his bare hands, feeds her cat and steals her color TV. Not for political reasons, I don’t think.

Raúl doesn’t look like John Travolta at all. I’d say he’s closer to Dustin Hoffman. You could say he’s an above average dancer, though. He gets pretty good at these moves, but he’s extremely insecure. When he trips on a loose board during a rehearsal he flies into a fury and starts tearing boards out of the floor. But he has a plan. He and Cony start shopping for glass tiles, and he finds some used ones in a junkyard, trades the TV for some and starts gradually replacing parts of the stage with a light up floor like in the movie. And later he glues pieces of a broken mirror onto a ball to use as a disco ball, crudely DIYing his Hollywood dreams. It could be some inspirational BE KIND REWIND type shit if not for the murder.

I think Cony is the linchpin to this one – she doesn’t know Raúl’s dark secrets, she’s been through some shit, is trying to find happiness, thinks she can find it with him. She does try to gently question his obsession with this cinematic embodiment of youth when she’s already accepted that she’s in her forties and he’s in his fifties. But when he’s intent on it she tries to be supportive, and when he gets self conscious about his hair being grey she tries to tell him it’s fine. She makes such an effort at a healthy relationship – unearned on his part – that I found myself wishing this family could somehow work out.

Of course it can’t, it won’t, not at all, not close. They do get to put on their show, but then he betrays them all, maybe in worse ways than I expected. And partly because he wants to be Tony Manero, the virile young king of 2001 Odyssey. He doesn’t really speak English, but he knows all the lines to FEVER. My hunch is he’s more interested in it as an aspirational tale than a dissection of toxic masculinity. He believes he’s special, and mimicking this character is the only way to show it.

One bit I love is when young Goyo, who is a more legit dancer than Raúl, gets fed up with his shit, decides to stop walking on egg shells around him, and gets booked as a contestant on the TV show looking for the Chilean Tony Manero. The others are like you’re gonna be on TV, I’m so proud, but Raúl is like, but I’m the one that’s like Tony Manero. I have the suit. This is a small prize and getting attention on one episode of this dumb TV show, next week it’ll be Burt Reynolds lookalikes or something, it matters even less than the contest the actual Tony Manero entered, but it’s everything to Raúl. And that’s dangerous.

The American Tony Manero had his share of working class challenges, as do these characters, but they’re also living under a repressive (possibly vampiric) regime. There’s a part where guests at the restaurant have to be told it’s closing time because the curfew is in half an hour. “Already?” Can you imagine? You can’t be out at night, and soldiers patrol the streets in tanks to enforce it. Doesn’t stop Raúl from killing an old widow, but stops these guys from having another glass of wine.

The old people have all accepted it, but the young people resist. Goyo seems like kind of an annoying douche, but we gotta have some respect for him because he and Pauli are secretly involved in printing and distributing anti-Pinochet flyers. Also they help save people from flooding in the city while the army does nothing. (That’s what Pauli says – we don’t see it, because Raúl stays home.) The punchline that really lands this movie for me (SPOILER) is that a subplot about cops trying to find out who the neighborhood subversives are culminates right before the contest on the TV show. These bastard cops clear the building, sit his whole family down at a table, start threatening and interrogating them over this horse shit, while Raúl is hiding in a closet. And then he sneaks out, goes to the TV studio, forgets all about them. I feel like that’s a good message. If you don’t care about oppression, or at least about how it affects your own family, you’re a fuckin psycho!

This is a unique one. I liked it. Now lets find the Chilean Sylvester Stallone (Marko Zaror?) to direct a crazy sequel.



This entry was posted on Thursday, March 21st, 2024 at 11:00 am and is filed under Reviews, Drama, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Responses to “Tony Manero”

  1. Fun review! I’ll have to see this. I’m a big big fan of Larrain’s “No”, so I hope that one comes up next. It’s basically about how ad wizards use western advertising techniques to oust Pinochet in the 80’s.

    This one, I haven’t seen, but it definitely reminds me of “The Face With Two Left Feet”, a (possibly?) Spanish film about “Saturday Night Fever” nerds who realize that if their best friend shaves his mustache, he looks JUST like Travolta’s Tony Manero. Or, rather, John Travolto. But in case you were wondering, YES, he looks EXACTLY like Travolta, down to the super specific chin cleft. It’s kind of amazing.

  2. I liked this one a lot way back when, but I remember it as weird, intense, and more than a little unpleasant. Looks like it’s due for a revisit; I think I may be getting it a little mixed up with POST MORTEM (I saw them back-to-back).
    And yeah, NO is awesome.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>