'As Luck Would Have It' (unrated)

Looks like one of Spanish cinema’s bad boys is trying to go commercial. No, not Pedro Almodóvar. Álex de la Iglesia (The Perfect Crime, The Last Circus) might not enjoy the same name recognition as his older colleague, but the former comic book artist has quietly built a niche for himself as a ruthless satirist whose violent sensibility brings to mind a pre-Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro. As Luck Would Have It (its Spanish title is La chispa de la vida, or The Spark of Life) is the Bilbao native’s most mainstream effort. Inaccurately described elsewhere as a wacky spoof of reality TV, the film is actually a strange hybrid of deadpan social satire and domestic melodrama, and as such allows de la Iglesia to display a newfound maturity and restraint that might have some of his fanboy admirers crying foul. Sincerity becomes him.

The plot kicks into gear when unemployed ad executive Roberto Gómez (José Mota), devastated after a job interview with a former colleague doesn’t go his way, drives to Cartagena to seek out the hotel where he and his Mexican wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) spent their honeymoon. Much to his surprise, the restored ruins of a Roman theater stand in its place. After sneaking away to a restricted area, Roberto finds himself the victim of a freak accident that lands the once-successful inventor of soft drink slogans on top of a platform with an iron rod stuck in the back of his head.

The stage for a media circus has been set, quite literally. If the ensuing time-sensitive situation sounds familiar, that’s because de la Iglesia, working from Robert Feldman’s screenplay, is borrowing the story template of Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Ace in the Hole, in which a newshound played by Kirk Douglas exploited the life-and-death struggle of a treasure seeker trapped in a cave. What’s novel about de la Iglesia’s approach is that in his film, Mota’s hanging-by-a-thread opportunist is the victim and the media whore.

Hayek, who acts as the movie’s conscience in the face of her husband’s eroding moral compass, persuasively tones down her star appeal, but she is also saddled with spouting most of de la Iglesia’s heavy-handed, almost-all-mass-media-are-evil agenda. The filmmaker seeks to retain the biting irony of his earlier films while also getting the audience to empathize with Roberto and his family. The gambit works for awhile, but eventually de la Iglesia is unable to sustain this delicate balancing act between satire and pathos. As Luck Would Have It’s inconsistencies, however, are redeemed to a large extent by the movie’s final 10 minutes, in which the director briefly reverts to his old bloodletting ways and delivers some of his least sardonic, most assured work to date.

Cast: José Mota, Salma Hayek, Blanca Portillo.

Director: Álex de la Iglesia.

Screenwriter: Randy Feldman.

An IFC Films release. Running time: Vulgar language, disturbing images, brief gore, adult themes. In Spanish with Engish subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.