By Robert Koehler
It is advisable to ignore most festival program notes. It is especially advisable to ignore the TIFF program note accompanying The Odd-Job Men, which would set up the viewer to expect a feminist parable on machismo. Catalan filmmaker Neus Ballús and the screenwriting team of Montse Ganges and Ana Sanz-Magallón (under their joint pseudonym Margarita Melgar) are interested in something more than agendas. Their tale, told over the span of a week, depicts the human comedy of a trio of handymen on duty in a wide range of domestic settings in Barcelona. The result is a human comedy made by women who are interested in characters, work, and places rather than targets or boogeymen.
Produced with the support of the University Pompeu Fabra’s Master in Creative Documentaries, The Odd-Job Men marks Ballús’ continued interest in an ongoing project at the school itself— blending nonfictional (in the casting of nonprofessional actors, for starters) and fictional elements. In this case, the nonfiction bits work best, particularly the movie’s capacity for taking in the city as a hive of activity and a place full of many peculiar, private spaces. Ballús is fascinated with the specific tasks and skills of Valero Escolar (foreman of Instalaciones Losilla), veteran craftsman Pep Sarrà (about to retire), and immigrant newcomer Mohamed Mellali—which stands to reason, given that Ballús’ father was a plumber. The movie’s affection for a life of working with your hands, with tools, of fixing what’s broken, is deep and unmistakable.
More problematic is the fiction stuff, which tends toward contrivance. Valero may be the foreman, but he’s not the boss—that would be his wife, played with flinty resolve by Paqui Becerra. She tells him to ease Moha into Pep’s role as Pep bows out, but because Valero carries his racism—and stubbornness—on his sleeve, that becomes a tall order. Will Moha survive the week under Valero’s withering jabs and obvious bigotry, or will he quit, leaving the small outfit in the lurch? Will old man Pep inject some necessary doses of wisdom into the situation and bring both sides together? You can guess where much of this is headed, but not necessarily how it resolves, which is on a note of bemused maturity. The tone is steadfastly deadpan (not the easiest approach for non-pros), except for the annoying wink-wink-nod-nod score by René-Marc Bini.