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Skilled acting helps 'The Valet' respect the unspectacular

There’s a scene in the great 2009 Coen Brothers film A Serious Man in which an orthodontist discovers a message on the back of a patient’s teeth that reads “Help Me”. He visits his rabbi in a panic, wondering what this could mean. What are the teeth really saying? he asks. Could it be a message from God? Should I be doing more to help my patient, or to help people more generally? His rabbi responds reasonably: The teeth? he says… we don’t know. A message from God? Don’t know. Helping people? Couldn’t hurt.

The new movie The Valet seems at least to have taken that last bit to heart, promoting the value of decency in a cutthroat world. It stars the Mexican actor and comedian Eugenio Derbez, a man who’s massively well known in the Spanish-speaking world, but far less so among English speakers. He plays Antonio, an overly modest valet in Los Angeles who lives with his aged mother while going through a separation with his wife. Through fairly convoluted means, Antonio ends up pretending to be the boyfriend of a world-famous actor, Olivia Allan, played by Samara Weaving. This is, of course, much to everyone’s astonishment, but especially to Antonio’s coworkers, who suddenly view the unassuming man as some kind of Svengali sex god.

As you may expect, Olivia eventually begins to see Antonio’s fundamental kindness and the effect it has on her and others around him. But it all feels less forced than you might think, which is largely due to Samara Weaving and her skill at seeming like a real, vulnerable person even in a lightly comedic role. Derbez, for his part, embraces the movie’s broad comedy but doesn’t let Antonio tip into caricature. He’s wide-eyed but restrained, which is just what his well-meaning character needs.

The Valet is not terribly deep or nuanced, and its humor is more amiable than hilarious, but it does generally respect the unspectacular lives of many of its characters and the richness of the immigrant experience in Los Angeles. There may not be any huge revelations here, but then again… helping people? Couldn’t hurt.

The Valet is on Hulu May 20th.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.