By Benjamin Akpan
In 2001, the country of Argentina experienced a great financial depression, leaving almost 70% of the population in deep poverty. In November of the same year, a great deal of trepidation ensued, causing people to empty their bank accounts just as quickly as they filled them up. In a bid to mitigate the growing bank panic, the Argentine government effectively froze all bank accounts, limiting withdrawals to the minor sum of $250 a week. Eighteen years later, Argentine filmmaker Sebastian Borensztein takes this crisis and turns it into the setting for his latest crowd-pleasing comedy, Heroic Losers, finding humour in a time in Argentina’s history was characterized by fear and misery. His heart is in the right place, but the middling execution halts the film’s potential.
Based on the 2016 book The Night of the Heroic Losers by Eduardo Sacheri, Sebastian Borensztein takes us along on an adventure following Fermín, a communally-beloved retired soccer player who hopes to bring opulence to his hometown situated outside Buenos Aires. Just before the bank freeze, he, together with his wife and a group of friends, decides to acquire an abandoned factory and turn it into a granary.
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But just as soon as they pool the money together and Fermín deposits the money in the bank (convinced to do so by a guileful bank manager), the bank freeze is enforced, and Fermín is left despondent. Things only get worse when they realize that a cunning lawyer, named Manzi, worked hand in hand with the bank manager to have all the cash in the bank withdrawn and stored in a heavily guarded underground vault for his personal gain. From then on, it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between Fermín’s bunch and Manzi, who will do anything to keep the vault secure.
Of course, there’s no question as to where the story goes – Heroic Losers has no surprise twists or suspenseful arcs. It’s a well-done comedy about a group of misfits winning the day. It’s an underdog story through and through, and the fusion of light tension and comedy is adeptly balanced. But Heroic Losers is not always a heist movie, and the time it spends being anything else fails to work for the most part. Borensztein spends an overwhelming amount of the film’s runtime setting up the final heist, and though it eventually pays off, a major chunk of the film’s core is exhaustingly dragged out to fill out a two-hour space that could have easily been sliced in half.
What the film does have going for it however, is a fine cast with enough charisma and chemistry to breathe life into the otherwise flat characters. As Fermín, Ricardo Darín fleshes out the simple concept of a downcast yet determined husband and father, whose drive easily overcomes the many, if obvious, obstacles. As Fermin’s friend Antonio, Luis Brandoni steals every scene, commanding your attention with enough control, all the while still giving other members of the cast their time to shine. Manzi is your run-of-the-mill, cartoony villain, whose drive is never explained or justified. Poorly written and underdeveloped, he is more of a punchline than he is an actual threat. Even so, Andrés Parra’s performance slightly boosts the character to a level of tolerability that I did not think was remotely possible.
A straightforward film without much ambition, Heroic Losers works best when it isn’t taking itself too seriously. In its first half, it teases an exploration of the socio-political system of Argentina, as well as class inequality. But whatever message it attempted to point out is blurred when the film shifts its tone from a drama to an unequivocal comedy in the second half – and thankfully too, since that is the half that works better. Nevertheless, Heroic Losers is an enjoyable and pleasant feel-good film that doesn’t require much effort from the viewer. Borensztein sets out to entertain the audience, and he does that well, but one can hardly shake the feeling that the film could’ve been so much more.
*Editor’s Note: Heroic Losers originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ‘19.