A Sly and Slight Meta-Comedy

Feb 8, 2023

If Jordan Firstman did not exist, it would be necessary for Sebastián Silva to invent him. “Discomfort rooted in class friction” and “the perverse amusement of watching people be annoying” rank high on the list of stalwart indie filmmaker Silva’s favorite recurring themes, and no modern type marries the two quite as handily as the social media influencer that plague of shamelessly promotional non-celebrities who adopt the entitled mindset of fame long before breaking into the industry sector accommodating it. With a whopping 804,000 followers on Instagram and a writers’ room credit on TV’s “Search Party” — a kindred work skewering the affectations of self-absorbed millennials — the hirsute and hip Firstman is farther along in his career than most guys peddling a feed of thirst traps and front-facing-camera bits charitably categorized as “humor.” But he’s one of them all the same, an insatiably gay hard-partier emboldened by his measure of notability, at once pushy and loud and horny and solipsistic.
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If that comes off as salty, it’s only because that’s how he’s portrayed in “Rotting in the Sun,” Silva’s slippery, sly, sporadically funny, and ultimately slight meta-comedy taking the both of them to Sundance. The creatively blocked “Sebastián” has fallen into a depressive funk while staying at a friend’s pad in Mexico City, Googling how to score the euthanasia drug Pentobarbital and spending too much time zonked on ketamine. He takes his buddy’s advice to visit Playa Zicatela — a queer hotspot with a liberal policy on nudity and an even more liberal policy on unsimulated sex acts — where he rescues the drowning “Jordan” from the riptide. This meeting is destiny, Jordan decides: they have-to-have-to-have-to work on a project together. Sebastián isn’t so enthused. Playing themselves — fictionalized, one presumes, but by how much? — they bare the least flattering aspects of their public personae in a downbeat character piece that turns on a dime into a farcical mystery.
Up to that point, the candid portraiture is all pretty much factual — the lone difference being that the real Silva happened upon Firstman in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro by his borrowed apartment (both of which appear as vérité settings in the film) instead of a beach. Their onscreen interest in one another has a believably mercenary symbiosis to it, as Jordan brings name recognition and reach to the obscure Sebastián in a humiliating pitch meeting with HBO while Sebastián lends talent and credibility to Jordan’s flimsy concept for a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” clone “but, like, positive.” And once the grating Jordan hits Sebastián’s patience threshold, the insults that his little videos have no aesthetic worth or artistic sensibility are hard to argue against. In the press notes, Silva describes his unlikely partner as an “over-sharer and fairly out there,” asking “very personal, very abrasive questions about my life,” though he adds that Firstman’s also a “very smart, funny guy and he really knows how to laugh at himself.” The tension between them has a realistic bite in its double-sided self-effacement, both men commendably game for wounding, plausible auto-critiques. 
Their petty dickishness needs a straight-man opposite to play off of, and that’s where Sebastián’s maid, Vero (Catalina Saavedra, playing Silva’s real-life household help), comes in. Jordan arrives at Sebastián’s city home ready to get down to business, only to find that he’s gone missing and become convinced that Vero’s colluding with Sebastián to professionally ghost him. As in “Search Party,” he takes the investigation upon himself under a premise of concern that masks a self-serving motivation, his initial desire to get his pilot off the ground eventually supplanted by the realization that this troubling episode makes for good content. All the while, Vero tries to stay out of trouble, her misdeeds along these lines nowhere near as delectably off-putting as the main duo’s behavior. Despite his stated intention for equal-opportunity offense, Silva’s Achilles heel has always been that he goes slightly easier on the characters on the receiving end of white-privileged tone-deafness, a consciousness that sometimes plays like condescension.
As an exceptionally hot iteration of the Ugly American — clinging to his speech-to-text translation app like an obscene brother of “Emily in Paris” — Firstman makes for a captivating screen presence in his willingness to be seen as genuinely shallow. Though it also stands to reason that an actor open to receiving fellatio in full view of the camera probably isn’t losing much sleep over what other people think about him. And Silva rewards him for it — Jordan’s bitter acceptance that his lifestyle may be hollow and uninspired carries sincere dramatic weight for its applicability to reality. For all the dicks of varying turgidity on proud display, it’s the intimations of true insecurities that leave these characters most nakedly exposed. [B]
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