HALFWAY THROUGH Bossa Nova, a lighthearted Brazilian offering with an appropriately seductive bossa-nova soundtrack, someone laments, "It sucks to swim alone." In the film's opening scene, widow-expat-ESL teacher Mary Ann (Amy Irving) snaps on her goggles and goes for a swim off one of Rio de Janeiro's crescent beaches. From an underwater vantage point we see her limbs flail, and it looks dreary—an awkward physical act that captures the very essence of loneliness.
directed by Bruno Barreto
with Amy Irving and Antonio Fagundes opens May 26 at Harvard Exit
Who could possibly stay single in Rio, the camera seems to ask in its above-water homage to a city long associated with carnivals, topless beaches, and fun, fun, fun? We're shown rowers, beach footballers, and even a waterfront tai-chi class, where dejected lawyer Pedro Paulo (the debonair Antonio Fagundes, Brazil's answer to Marcello Mastroianni) encounters his estranged wife and her Chinese lover.
Meanwhile, Mary Ann teaches night classes and tutors two students privately in her beachfront apartment: Nadine, a woman engaged in an Internet romance with an American; and Acᣩo, a soccer star who's been sold to a team in Manchester and needs to brush up on his English expletives. When Pedro Paulo spots Mary Ann in an elevator after her class ends one evening, he, too, becomes one of her students. With a little flirtation and some cocktails, he convinces her to forego her solo swims for arm-in-arm strolls along the beach.
But no lovebirds are immune to complications, however silly. Comedic predictability nearly drowns the story's earlier spontaneity and breezy spirit, and our couple find themselves divided by several bad-timing mishaps. Instead of sinking under this strain, however, Bossa Nova revels in the tomfoolery of these midlife lovers whose second grope at happiness is interrupted by an ex-wife, a lawsuit, and a leg cramp. Irving's been-around-the-emotional-block character lets her inner coquette loose when sharing the screen with Fagundes, and he responds in kind, playing the oafish, lovesick suitor with an irresistible Latin flair.
Director Bruno Barreto deftly balances the locale against the plot's shenanigans so that one doesn't outdo the other. Like Pedro Almod�'s Madrid, Rio serves as a cartoonish backdrop to an even-more-cartoonish array of characters and situations. The whole thing plays like a spoof of the dance evoked by the title, in which two people grasp hands, navigate the rhythmic complexities, and end up together with a goofy flourish.