July 21, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Marcos Carnevale
Spanish with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during the Donald Trump administration, the comedy/drama film “El Cuartito” features a predominantly Hispanic cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Five strangers find themselves stuck together in a detainee room at the San Juan Airport for different reasons, and they have various conflicts while a possible hurricane is looming,
Culture Audience: “El Cuartito” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in far-fetched, broad comedies that try to be politically edgy but end up being very sappy.
“El Cuartito” mistakenly gives the impression that it’s a satirical comedy about how people in Puerto Rico were affected by immigration policies of the Donald Trump administration. The movie is really just a silly hodgepodge of ludicrous scenarios that have no real edge. And at least two of the movie’s five main characters will annoy even the most patient viewers.
Directed by Marcos Carnevale (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Javier De Nevares), “El Cuartito” (which means “the little room” in Spanish) takes place almost entirely at San Juan Airport in Puerto Rico. The movie’s scenes that don’t take place in Puerto Rico are mostly when the five main characters in the story have flashbacks of what happened to each of them before they arrived at the airport on this fateful day. Each of these backstories explains why each of these five characters has had the inconvenience of being detained at the airport.
“El Cuartito” takes place sometime during the period of time when Donald Trump was president of the United States, after he notoriously made this September 2017 statement about Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria devastating Puerto Rico: “This is an island, surrounded by water. Big water.” A recording of Trump saying these words at a news conference is repeated at the beginning and at the end of “El Cuartito.” And several of the characters talk about Trump in the movie.
But if viewers are expecting to see or hear anything politically or socially witty in “El Cuartito,” disappointment will quickly set in because the movie consists mostly of people being illogical, argumentative and/or or mentally unhinged for long stretches of the film. And the ways that certain problems are resolved in the story are downright cringeworthy and insulting to viewers’ intelligence.
For most of “El Cuartito,” five strangers are stuck together in a detainee room in the San Juan Airport, whose formal name is Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. During the course of the story, these detained airline customers argue with each other, worry about what immigration officials will do to them, and eventually plot to escape when they see an air vent in the room that could possibly be a way out of the building.
These five strangers are:
- Juan Miguel “Toti” Cuervo (played by Mario de la Rosa), a has-been, egotistical pop/rock star from Madrid, Spain, is desperate to make a comeback because he’s bankrupt. Toti is in San Juan to perform a lucrative Thanksgiving dinner concert for a rich private client. However, Toti has been detained at the airport because his fidgety manager Juan David León (played by Hector Escudero Lobe) failed to get a work visa for Toti and got him a tourist visa instead.
- Lina Fernández de Montepieller (played by Claribel Medina), who lives in Paris, is a high-maintenance and wealthy snob who is on multiple types of medication. Lina is in San Juan to meet her sister, so that they can take a Prince of the Ocean cruise together. Lina has been detained because while she was waiting in line to go through X-ray clearance, she accidentally dropped several of her pills from their bottles, which raised airport suspicions about what types of pills she’s carrying. Airport security has to do toxicology tests on the pills to make sure they’re not illegal.
- Mariel (played by Isel Rodriguez), a heartbroken woman, is orginally from Puerto Rico, but she has been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the past 15 years. Mariel has been estranged from her mother, for reasons that are revealed in the movie, and wants to possibly reconnect with the family she left behind in Puerto Rico. Mariel has been detained because her passport has expired.
- Jesus Reyes (played by Ianis Guerrero), a native of Mexico, has a secret reason for wanting to be in Puerto Rico. He was detained because airport officials caught him with a fake passport. Early on in the movie, before he was detained at the airport, Luis is shown furtively talking to someone on the phone and asking if “the merchandise is okay.” It’s obvious that Jesus is talking in code.
- Santos Domingo (played by Fausto Mata) is a flamboyant preacher from the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. Santos aspires to be someone like Joel Osteen (a megachurch preacher with his own TV show), and he claims that he has psychic powers that he’s received directly from God. Santos has been detained because he’s tried to illegally enter Puerto Rico before, and this is the third time he’s been busted for it.
When Jesus is brought into the room, Lina (who is by far the loudest and most obnoxious character in the story) immediately accuses him of being a terrorist. Why? She thinks he looks like a terrorist. Jesus is insulted. He tells Lina that he’s Mexican and that Mexicans aren’t radical Muslim terrorists.
Lina says that Mexicans can be drug lords, which Jesus doesn’t disagree with, but he says drug lords aren’t the same as terrorists. “Mexicans don’t bomb people!” Jesus angrily shouts at Lina. However, Lina keeps thinking that he must be some kind of criminal, even though she doesn’t know anything about him.
There’s some repetitive back-and-forth arguing between Lina and Jesus, as Lina exposes herself as being very racist and xenophobic. And she’s not very smart, because she keeps confusing Puerto Rico with Costa Rica. It’s supposed to be a running joke in the movie. Lina also goes into loud hysterics and throws tantrums, which she thinks will help her get out of the detainee room early. Her unruly diva antics don’t work.
In the detainee room, which looks very much like the set of a movie or a stage play, there are three items hanging on the wall: A photo portrait of Trump, in between the U.S. flag and the Puerto Rican flag. At various times in the movie, the detainees occasionally go up to the photo of Trump and say things to and about him—mostly innocuous and forgettable comments about the Trump administration’s immigration policy changes. Lina seems to be a Trump supporter, while Jesus is most definitely not.
Meanwhile, Mariel happens to be a fan of Toti’s music, so she acts very star-struck with him. Toti is very flattered, and he expresses an attraction to Mariel too, but he’s not sure what Mariel’s story is (she’s not wearing a wedding ring), and he isn’t sure how far to go with their flirtation. Toti is still famous enough that people who know who he is would know that he’s an available bachelor. Mariel’s relationship status is eventually revealed in the movie.
Mariel and Toti’s would-be romance is actually quite boring and more than a little corny, since Mariel acts like a gushing teenage girl around Toti. For example, Mariel sings lines from Toti’s hit songs to him while they’re locked up together. And at one point, he sings to her too. Try not to retch.
Santos isn’t brought into the detainee room until the movie is already half over. He’s predictably over-the-top with his preaching. He’s also very good at figuring out personal information about his fellow detainees, based on how they look and the way that they act. Santos and Lina are both very status-conscious, which somewhat explains a subplot that happens between them toward the end of the movie. But this subplot is rushed into the film and seems to come out of nowhere.
During all the arguing, fretting and ego posturing in this room, there’s some potential drama waiting for these detainees outside the airport. When they arrived at the airport, it was all over the news that a hurricane was probably headed toward Puerto Rico. This potential disaster is also handled in a disappointing way in the movie.
“El Cuartito” has moments that can bring chuckles, so it succeeds in minor ways as a comedy. However, the movie fails to consistently bring genuinely clever, laugh-out-loud scenes because the jokes often fall flat. If you’re doing a movie where most of it is about people who are stuck in a room, then the characters need to seem real, relatable and developed. Unfortunately, the main characters in “El Cuartito” are nothing but stereotypes acting in predictable ways. And the secrets that are revealed about their personal lives are not surprising at all. The actors don’t add any depth to these clichés.
The last third of the movie really goes off of the rails with a dumb escape plan where these detainees don’t think that they’ll just make more trouble for themselves if they escape. “El Cuartito” has some slapstick moments that look like something out of a bad telenovela. There’s some mocking of Trump (including a scene where his framed portrait falls off of the wall and the glass cracks), but the anti-Trump jokes look dated, considering he’s no longer president of the United States.
And that’s not all that’s outdated about the movie. It’s like “El Cuartito” is trying to be an adult Hispanic version of filmmaker John Hughes’ 1985 comedy “The Breakfast Club,” which was about five white teenagers (three males and two females) stuck in a classroom on a weekend morning because they’re in high school detention. “El Cuartito” copies “The Breakfast Club” formula of each character eventually revealing a personal sob story, so that everyone in the group can feel more empathetic to each other. The big difference is that “The Breakfast Club” is a genuinely funny classic, while “El Cuartito” is a lightweight, clumsily written comedy that most viewers will forget about soon after seeing it.
Wiesner Distribution released “El Cuartito” in select U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021. The movie was released in Puerto Rico on March 25, 2021. HBO will premiere the movie on September 17, 2021.