Señor Gross Out
By JACK NOV. 12, 2006 www.nytimes.com
One of the highest-grossing movies in the history of Spanish cinema is Torrente 2,” the 2001 sequel to the 1998 gross-out movie “Torrente,” which is not nearly as gross as the grossest movie of them all, last year’s “Torrente 3,” which is real gross, even though it didn’t gross as much as “Torrente 2.”
Americans like to think we own the modern gross genre because we popularized it with “Animal House,” the “American Pie” franchise, various productions by the Farrelly brothers, the “Jackass” oeuvre and the animated movies of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But gross has gone global, and the American gross-out industry may be heading the way of Detroit automobiles — an old-economy product whose manufacturers are unaware that foreign competition is passing them by on matters of cheapness, innovation and potential crossover appeal. The story of the globalization of gross-out is not just another business yarn about American cultural exports. It is also the story of the self-made director of the “Torrente” series, a 41-year-old Spaniard named Santiago Segura. He grew up in an impoverished district of Madrid, taught himself how to use a super-8 camera and shot his early movies on the street, guerrilla-style, with expired film he bought on the cheap. “Torrente 2” pulled in $28 million at the box office in Spain, a phenomenal sum by the standards of a country with a population one-seventh that of the United States and a land mass that could be easily nestled inside Texas with more than enough room left over for Portugal. Segura, who also stars in his movies, is one of the biggest celebrities in Spain, and he is famous in other Spanish-speaking countries as well. “The only person I’ve ever been out with who was approached like Santiago,” his friend John Landis, the director, told me, “is John Belushi, or maybe Michael Jackson.”
But like all foreign comedians, Segura can’t help noticing the American market, where gross receipts can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What European comic can watch the success of the Italian comedian Roberto Benigni here in the United States — he won a Best Actor Oscar for “Life Is Beautiful” — and not dream? The question is, Can a foreign comic break into Hollywood by reimporting new-and-improved gross-out back to the land of its birth?
To understand the potential of Segura, it is crucial to understand the magnitude of grossness of the character he plays. Torrente bumbles his way through everything he does, managing to offend or gross out everyone around him. (Yet he always, in the end, saves the day.) Marry Inspector Clouseau with the sensibility of the “Aristocrats” joke and you come close to the mise en scène of Torrente. Americans have a long and intimate affection for grossness in the cinematic form. Who doesn’t get choked up thinking about that scene in “Animal House” when John Belushi does his famous zit impression by blasting what appears to be a mouthful of mashed potatoes all over the jock and his girlfriend? We get dewy-eyed thinking about Jim Carrey’s talking buttocks in “Ace Ventura” and overtaken with sentimentality recalling Cameron Diaz and the hair-gel moment in “There’s Something About Mary.” How about the pool bit in “Caddyshack,” when Bill Murray and that Baby Ruth bar are momentarily misunderstood? (Wait, wait. One more: The vomit scene in “Team America.”) And yet, once you have experienced “Torrente,” you will look back at those scenes as quaintly innocent, like the yearbook shot of your high-school haircut. Segura’s character is an unrelenting firehose of grossness, just as his name implies. He is a failed policeman, presumably fired from the force years ago for reasons that are all too easy to imagine. He is a racist, a fascist, a sexist, a gay-basher, a hater of foreigners, a pig, an idiot, a pervert — for starters.
Experts in gross, like 15-year-old boys, will tell you that high-quality gross-out centers on the horror we all share as existential inmates of the human body, particularly the common nightmare of contending with the escaping solids, fluids and gases required to keep it running. Flatulence is a staple of gross because, experts agree, it’s always funny. Torrente relies on this comic styling a lot, as either a kicker to a good scene, punctuation to a solemn remark or the equivalent of a howdy-do. A mighty wind, though, is just the beginning of basic gross-out, and Santiago Segura is the Hieronymus Bosch of gross. The big picture is impressive enough, but for the connoisseur, it’s all in the details.
Take hair. Torrente is bald — but not just bald. He has a comb-over. But not just a comb-over. He hasn’t bathed in weeks, so the comb-over is matted. But it’s not just matted; he’s also sweating most of the time, so in almost every scene the viewer must endure his stringy, clumpy comb-over draped like a greasy black squid atop a dome of glistening skull skin. It’s this attention to detail that impresses the American observer.
Then there is Torrente’s body, which is fat. And yet fat doesn’t really capture his physique. Segura gained as much as 80 pounds each time he played the role. This did not yield a nice, round middle-aged paunch. Instead, Torrente is doughy, a man with a pasty, pale (and hairy) stomach with the consistency of a half-filled bag of cottage cheese, somehow always in motion as if influenced by tidal forces. This gut is seen a lot, as when, in “Torrente 3,” he decides to get fit and, shirt off, gets all of it jiggling while strapped into the waist belt of a vibrating exercise machine. Then he lowers the belt to a suggestive level and begins to pant.
I arranged to meet Segura on a bright, lovely Madrid afternoon not long ago at a coffee shop near the Plaza de España. It was rush hour, and we both stood waiting for each other for five minutes or so among crowded tables near zooming boulevard traffic. He didn’t know what I looked like, and I was unprepared for a non-Torrente Segura. In reality, Segura is a nice-looking guy who is in fact bald but has grown his side hair to the cocky length of a freshly tenured comp-lit professor. He was wearing an orange Fred Flintstone T-shirt, complete with a printed blue tie.
Despite his many chameleon variations, his status as Spanish superstar is never in doubt. As we strolled down the Gran Via talking, no question from me was even half-answered before someone would jump up from a cafe table to ask for an autograph. There’s a twist, though: Segura’s fans, when they see him, are in the habit of calling out the most notorious catchphrase from his movies. In all three of the “Torrente” movies, the character finds himself on a stakeout with a newbie cop and explains that an old detective tradition involves masturbating each other in a car, adding that of course this doesn’t make them gay. The phrase that Segura uses as his invitation has so permeated daily Spanish culture that occasionally a cellphone will go off, and instead of a ring, you’ll hear Torrente’s voice making his obscene request. And let’s just say that when you’re wandering the streets of Madrid with a celebrity at 2 a.m., it’s a disconcerting greeting to hear from a mob of Spaniards cheerfully bolting from a bar.
Comedy is a nightmare to translate, isn’t it? Think about how much easier it is to be a straight dramatic actor who is beautiful, like Penelope Cruz or Antonio Banderas. Good looks, like wildlife programming on public television, can easily make the jump from one culture to another. But comedy, as Sir Donald Wolfit told us, is hard. “Bruce Almighty” and “Meet the Parents” were monster hits in Spain, but according to Segura, Adam Sandler can’t get any traction. Now consider how difficult it is to jump the other way. When was the last time you read the phrase “The hilarious new comedy from Germany!”? British comedy sometimes makes the leap, as in the “Pink Panther” movies or “Monty Python,” but in other cases (Rowan Atkinson) it remains incomprehensible to Americans. The sophisticated comedies of Pedro Almodóvar cross over because the United States has an art-house culture that seeks them out. Torrente is very much a universal character, but he is also deeply enmeshed in the Spanish experience, a washout from the long-ago Fascism of Francisco Franco. And despite their wild success in Spain, the “Torrente” films have never had American theatrical distribution beyond the occasional festival screening. DVDs are available, but I had to work the South Korean corners of eBay to find them.
“I don’t really think that much about getting into the American market,” Segura said, but it was clear that this was not true. New Line Cinema has optioned the rights to the Torrente character, though Segura knows that if an American version is ever made, he is not likely to play the lead. (The name Jack Black is kicking around in casting circles.)
For someone who insists that he’s not thinking about America, Segura can also suddenly volunteer, “I’d be happy to get a small part on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ or play a waiter on ‘The Sopranos’ or a doorman in a Martin Scorsese movie.” And it would be hard to find another person in Spain, or even Europe, who is more familiar with our culture. Late one afternoon, he invited me to his apartment on the Gran Via to watch some of his favorite clips. His place is pretty modest in size for a superstar, but it has its amenities. His plush bed has a button next to it that automatically raises a shade on a large picture window with a sweeping vista of Madrid’s rooftops centered on a view of the Palacio Real, the official home of King Juan Carlos. But it’s hard to see the bed, or the walls, or in fact any flat surface at all because there are thousands of DVDs, CDs, old VHS tapes, novels, magazines and comic books stacked up everywhere. It would seem that there is no American film that’s not here — screwball Cary Grant comedies, compilations of early Eddie Murphy stand-up and Chris Farley “Saturday Night Live” skits, the latest DVDs with Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson. A set of shelves plopped in the middle of the room spills over with the stuff. Open boxes bursting with new films sit here and there. We snaked our way through the labyrinth to his sofa. After clearing off still more DVDs, we sat down before a wide-screen TV, itself a base for another Dr. Seuss-like tower of videos. Segura can quote his favorite comics, chapter and verse. He plugged in some Steve Martin, a magic bit from an ancient “Tonight Show” in which Martin, as the Great Flydini, keeps pulling things out of his zipper — a handkerchief, some eggs, eventually a phone ringing with a call for him.
“Steve Martin is my hero,” Segura said. “I just read in an interview that he collects art. He collects Pablo Picasso.” He puckered his entire face into an expression of comic humility. “Have I shown you my Snoopy originals?”
Actually, what’s hanging on his walls, sitting on the shelves and stacked in shipping crates, waiting to be framed, is a hip curator’s museum of American visual ephemera. Original artwork by Gahan Wilson, Al Hirschfeld, R. Crumb, Frank Frazetta and a dozen New Yorker cartoonists, as well as original images of Prince Valiant, Tarzan, Little Annie Fanny and Wicked Wanda, not to mention early panels by some of MAD Magazine’s illustrators — Don Martin, Mort Drucker (who did those movie parodies) and Jack Davis. Segura confessed that he often sat late into the night at his computer, bidding for these specific pieces of American arcana in private Internet auctions and on eBay. He grabbed my arm and whisked me out the apartment to the elevator. “You have to see this,” he said. We traveled a few floors away to his production office.
“Do you know who Drew Struzan is?” he asked. I didn’t, but he wasn’t really waiting for my answer. “He did the posters for ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Back to the Future.’ ” He pushed open a heavy door, thick as a bank vault, and swept his hand in front of him like a game-show supermodel to indicate the original artwork for the poster of “Torrente 3.” Sure enough, in the fish-eye perspective of Torrente’s gut and the fiery amber colors of the explosions in the background, you can see the same hand that painted the poster art for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
Segura crossed his arms over his chest, luxuriating in the covert pleasure of seeing his Torrente directly linked to Indiana Jones. “For me,” Segura said, “I’m done.”
Four years ago, Segura almost became the next Roberto Benigni. He received a call from a producer named Fernando Sulichin. “He said he was a big fan of the ‘Torrente’ series and said, ‘You have to do a movie with me,’ ” Segura told me. “I thought he was crazy. He did all this name dropping. He would say, ‘Martin’ and mean Martin Scorsese. I was talking about ‘The King of Comedy,’ one of my favorite movies, and I said, ‘I wish that movie had come out on DVD.’ He said, ‘I think it is out on DVD,’ and then he said, ‘Let me call Martin.’ For me, it was like a fairy tale. He called right there and said, ‘You’re right, it’s not out on DVD, but it will be.’ ”
Soon enough, Segura was on a plane to Hollywood. The movie that Sulichin had cast him in was called “R.V.” (not to be confused with the Robin Williams vehicle). “I was living the Hollywood fantasy,” Segura told me. “I got a script. I was the star. It was about a Spanish guy who went to a place in the South where there are a lot of R.V.s.” Scarlett Johansson was mentioned as a possible co-star, as was Jack Palance.
Segura managed to make a few well-placed friends during his stay in Los Angeles. Another director introduced him to Landis, who directed “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.” Sulichin introduced him to Oliver Stone, who tried to option the “Torrente” franchise. (The deal fell apart because “Santiago was as despicable a person as he was onscreen,” Stone joked.) Segura is always eager to collaborate with those he admires; he gave Landis a cameo in “Torrente 3” as an Arab diplomat, and Stone appeared in the same film, briefly, as a drunken British soccer thug. The “R.V.” production was no exception. “There was a part in the script that called for a midget who is selling Viagra in the R.V. camping sites,” Segura told me. “I suggested my favorite film-score composer, Paul Williams” — who is in fact quite short. Williams, who wrote the music for “Bugsy Malone” and “The Muppet Movie,” agreed to do it.
“Then Paul Williams said to me, ‘Maybe you and I can write some music for the movie,’ ” Segura recalled. “I thought it was all a dream.”
This being Hollywood, soon enough it all was. The film lost its financing, and Segura was busted back to struggling-foreign-actor-in-Hollywood (a remote suburb of casting hell), scraping for character bits and fetching cameos. “In Spanish we have a saying,” he told me. “El mundo es un pañuelo — ‘The world is a handkerchief.’ It means the same as ‘It’s a small world.’ ” For Segura, it meant that his old and new friends in Hollywood tossed him enough small parts to keep afloat. At one point he played the gross manager of a seedy hotel in “Tiptoes,” acting alongside Kate Beckinsale, Matthew McConaughey and Gary Oldman. “I get beat up by Patricia Arquette in that movie,” Segura proudly reported. “She really pounds on me.”
In fact, chances are pretty good that you are already familiar with the work of Santiago Segura, however fleetingly. He was with Oliver Stone during the filming of “Comandante,” which was built around interviews Stone conducted in Cuba. Santiago can be seen lurking, Zelig-like, in the scenes with Castro. Certain directors like to hire him, like Guillermo del Toro (no relation to the actor Benicio del Toro). After they met more than 10 years ago at Sitges, a horror-film festival held near Barcelona, Segura and del Toro become good buddies. “He’s the one who showed me eBay,” Segura confessed. He went on to say: “Guillermo said to me that it would cost him more to hire a mediocre comic actor in Hollywood than it would to hire any of the biggest comedians in Europe.” Even a top Spanish star cast in a Spanish film will earn no more than about $250,000. Segura, in other words, works cheap. So his pañuelo roles range from the bad guy in “Agent Cody Banks 2” to the bad guy in “Blade 2,” in which he plays the thug who escapes the first slaughter only to get whacked, horribly, in the final mayhem so that the film wraps up with that tidy-bow-on-top-of-the-gore feeling. “Hellboy” fans may recall the scene in which Ron Perlman’s lovable demon is chasing that Alien-like monster down the tracks of the New York subway. The creature spies a departing train, leaps aboard, rips open the door and shoves the conductor (Segura) aside before racing through the car. Perlman then leaps onto the train, and Segura mistakes him and his sawed-off horns for another invading monster. Like any good New York civil servant, Segura’s conductor clonks the beast on the head with a fire extinguisher, which sends him plunging beneath the train.
Photomontage by Zachary Scott
John Landis and Oliver Stone remain friends and admirers of Segura’s. “Torrente is Don Quixote,” Landis explained, “without the nobility.” Stone told me, with a hint of jealousy in his voice: “Torrente is just outrageous. He is just so immoral. Anything that is despicable, he does. And he doesn’t do it because he is malicious. He’s just a fundamentally despicable human being. In comedy, you poke fun at pretentiousness and normality. Torrente makes fun of everything we find legitimate and respectable.”
Over the phone, Stone guffawed. “One of my favorite scenes,” he said, “is when this poor guy comes to Torrente and says he’s brokenhearted about his wife. He wants Torrente to track her down because he thinks she’s cheating on him. And of course, Torrente goes and finds her working in a whorehouse. He uses that to force her to sleep with him, and then he insists on taking all her money. He walks out of the apartment, and the poor slob of a husband is there crying and says, ‘What did you find out?’ He lies to the guy, tells him everything is fine, and then takes his money. It’s just completely immoral.”
One night over dinner, Segura told me, “Torrente is everything I hate about my country all in one place.” And this uncompromising quality to his character may be precisely why American directors admire Torrente; they never get to go this far. American grossness or offensiveness is often eased in the end by some kind of redemption. Homer Simpson may be a selfish slob, but he actually does love his family. Chris Farley’s Tommy Boy and Jack Black’s “School of Rock” guy and Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison all have their hearts in the right place. In order to make it O.K. for us to laugh at all the fat jokes and cringe-worthy sex humiliations, there must be something redemptive in the character.
Torrente is redemption-free.
“I have thought about how to make Torrente work in America,” Segura said. “You would have to change some things. My only advice to anyone writing it is, do not shy away from being rough. Be brutal. Whatever you don’t like about America, you put in Torrente.”
Will New Line, say, go that far? It’s hard to imagine. The American Torrente would have to have a soft side. He will be allowed to pass all the gas he wants so long as he loves his mother.
Landis has his own thoughts on the matter. “If I were doing an American version of Torrente, I would cast Santiago and make him a Hispanic cop who comes to us. They do this all the time. Arnold Schwarzenegger played a Soviet cop who comes to Chicago to work with Jim Belushi in ‘Red Heat.’ It’s called ‘fish out of water,’ and it’s the second most common theme after ‘boy meets girl.’ I would cast Santiago and surround him with great people and fantastic situations. Now, will they do that? Absolutely not. They’ll go with whom they presume will deliver the opening weekend.”
If “Torrente” makes Santiago Segura famous in Hollywood, he knows it will probably be as a producer or a writer, not as an actor (although he said he’d like to at least have a cameo in his own franchise). Not that he thinks about being famous here as an actor. No, of course not. Never crossed his mind.
“I did have this one other idea,” he ventured, over dessert. “It’s a wager movie, like ‘Trading Places’ or ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’ I love wager movies. The pitch is these two older gigolos sitting in a country-club restaurant. They are having an argument about whether seducing a woman is a gift you are born with or a talent you can learn. The two men are, like, Burt Reynolds and George Hamilton. Reynolds is arguing that it can be taught. Hamilton says it’s innate. Reynolds looks across the way at a janitor cleaning the floor and bets Hamilton he can teach him to seduce the most beautiful woman in the place. In time, of course, he does, and then both the janitor and Reynolds actually fall in love with this woman. But it starts with the two gigolos looking at this janitor and shaking hands over this wager. The camera comes in close on the guy mopping. He turns, and it’s me.”