Rio, I Love You is totally the brainchild of a tourism board. The film’s fairly upfront about that. It takes roughly seven production company credits, followed by an assortment of co-producer logos (not to mention several sponsorship appreciations), before this film even considers opening with any shots. And of course the first image is of a slick skyline. In fact, get ready for tons of that, in the form of sleek vignettes serving up all sorts of nonsense that happens to be set in Rio de Janeiro with spare-no-expense aerial photography.
And yet in spite of the obvious tourist traps, Rio, I Love You is a work of sheer, shameless commerciality, slapdash but sometimes sensational, emboldened by a wild bossanova soundtrack. As long as Christ the Redeemer’s occasionally in frame, Rio, I Love You seems to do whatever it wants.
Rio, I Love You is the third project in producer Emmanuel Benbihy’s “Cities of Love” series. The thread is simple: pick a city, and stack shorts from prestige directors. The first two films, Paris, je t’aime and New York I Love You managed to draw likes of the Coens, Alexander Payne, Mira Nair, Wes Craven, Gus Van Sant, and Alfonso Cuarón. Brett Ratner, too.
For Rio, I Love You, folks like Paolo Sorrentino, Fernando Meirelles, Carlos Saldanha, and more bring unique eyes to the Marvelous City. The end result? Rio, I Love You is very hot, but more often cold.
To sit here and list off every last short, its director, and each plot is a waste when that’s something Wikipedia can do just fine. To best illustrate the film’s disparate structure, it’s comprised of roughly 20 sections, with character intros at the start followed by individual, ten-minute segments. Among the assemblage, there’s English actress Emily Mortimer as a gold-digging floozy on vacation. Harvey Keitel is an actor seeing sights. Narcos’ Wagner Moura is some angsty dude with a hang-glider. There’s a hopelessly romantic cabbie, a blithe English teacher, a one-armed boxer, a French sandcastle builder, and a waiter who’s a daytime vampire. Few people are actually connected, and each story exists in its own surreal, sullen, or silly universe, often regardless of the central setting.
Some stories sell themselves better than others, and overall there are three pieces that really liven things up. Of note, Sorrentino’s “La Fortuna,” with Mortimer and her rich husband, recalls Ealing Studios black comedies from the ‘50s. Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki makes a fanciful fairy tale about a little boy waiting for a call from God at a pay phone. Brazil’s own Carlos Saldanha, of the Ice Age movies, crafts a ballet with silhouettes at the Municipal Theatre. Those are the good ones. Those should be found on YouTube when the time comes.
But then comes City of God co-director Fernando Meirelles with a grating foot-fetishist fantasy on the beach in “A Musa.” John Turturro delivers a rigid, sub-Chayefsky marital crisis in gold hues. Rocky meets Indecent Proposal in a tonally askew boxing piece. And then there’s that dippy vampire story, though it does at least feature some killer parade music. The film’s great themes? These projects have little to do with love or Rio, but they sure were filmed there.
Rio is intriguing enough as a series of aesthetic exercises. The images consist of mountains, interior and exterior architecture, kids playing soccer, beaches, street musicians, and a world of super-saturated orange/pink postcard vistas. More often than not Rio, I Love You is vibrant and easy on the eyes, practically begging for attention. “What sunsets! Such music and color! Better book that flight and leave iPhone space for pictures.” What counts is that the film is seldom a snooze, and everything gels, albeit awkwardly, through the city’s signature sounds. It’s worth hyping the inclusion of music by Gilberto Gil, Luiz Gonzaga, and many other resident musicians, which sets up the film’s jazzy, smooth, and puckered-up pace.
Here’s 110 minutes of mostly A-list auteurs making ads as short films, bringing all sorts of gusto, while likely getting paid handsomely to make Rio look neat. At its worst, Rio, I Love You stinks of marketing cynicism – perhaps a drinking game for every FIAT or Coronetto in the shot could be fun. And besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little curiosity when a brand name does a little bit of fun side work. Rio, I Love You is worth a passing look for its pot of talent.