Those who remember Javier Bardem as the heartthrob poet from Before Night Falls or the distinguished detective in The Dancer Upstairs may be shocked to find that in his latest film to reach these shores, Mondays in the Sun, the Latin hunk is balding, bearded and fat. Admittedly, he may be just about the sexiest balding fat bearded man alive, but in this film, he's much closer to the live-action Bluto (otherwise known as Paul L. Smith) from Robert Altman's Popeye than he is to Antonio Banderas. Also, he plays a shipbuilder who's recently been laid off, so while he has every reason to be as angry as his cartoonish seafaring doppelgänger, it's over something a bit more substantive than an obscenely skinny girlfriend absconding with a vegetarian Sailor Man.
Bardem is Santa (and what more appropriate name for a fat bearded man?): formerly a welder, currently on trial for vandalizing a street lamp in the course of protesting the shipyard's mass layoffs. Santa hangs out in a bar run by formerly laid-off colleague Rico (Joaquín Climent) alongside other ex-coworkers, among them José (Luis Tosar), emasculated because his wife is employed (albeit as a tuna canner) and he isn't; Serguei (Serge Riaboukine), a Russian ex-cosmonaut left behind at the end of the Cold War; Paulino (José Angel Egido), a middle-aged man desperately trying to compete with young people in the job market despite having no computer skills; Reina (Enrique Villén), who works as a "security technician" ("not a cop," he insists) at a football stadium, where he can sneak his friends in via the rafters so long as they don't mind seeing only half the field; and Amador (Celso Bugallo), a burned-out aging drunk harboring a long-term delusion that his wife will one day come back to him.
Basically, then, this plays like a Mike Leigh film with better-looking people -- even when they pack on the pounds, those Spaniards have all the good genes. There's not much in the way of narrative thrust, but then, that's the way life is when you're unemployed: a series of vignettes, some funny and some sad, all meandering. Paulino tries to hide the gray in his hair, then finds himself on an interview with black rivulets trickling down his ears. José suspects his wife of cheating when he sees a male coworker holding her hand. Santa romances a woman whom he meets in a grocery store, where she's distributing free samples of Swiss cheese. Reina complains that his taxes go to welfare, which encourages his colleagues not to job-hunt as zealously as they could.
In the film's standout scene, a desperate Santa takes on a babysitting job from Rico's teenage daughter Nata (Aida Folch). She runs off to meet a boy, subcontracting Santa for $3 out of her $5. Santa promptly invites all his friends over to plunder the whiskey cabinet, then, while reading a bedtime story to the child he's watching, gets furious at the tale of the grasshopper and the ant inasmuch as it resembles his own situation. By evening's end, José has raided the closets and come away with a pair of fancy shoes for his wife.
Not every moment is as compelling, however, and at almost two hours, Mondays in the Sun proves to be a movie for the patient filmgoer. There's some resolution at the end, prompted by an obligatory last-minute crisis, but in general the film can be a lot like life -- you take the joy where you can find it, and just roll along the rest of the time. It's hard to feel too heartbroken about most of these men, as for the most part they seem to be handling themselves quite well, the aging Amador being a notable exception. Oh, sure, they get mad sometimes, but by film's end, they're laughing again. Neorealism it ain't, but if you have a sufficiently long attention span, there are moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity that are worth the price of admission.