Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a mainstay for those in business like successful Warren Buffet, who still has his certificate from the Dale Carnegie course mounted on his office wall. How to Win Enemies underscores Carnegie’s ideas with an antithetical take on Carnegie that employs ironic references, not only in the title but also with characterizations, the plot development, and themes throughout this unusual cross-genre film. Indeed, writer/director Gabriel Lichtmann’s work is an Argentine crash course in how to avenge oneself on mendacious, insidiously self-serving and arrogant enemies who, with impunity, flit through the business world and assume they can trample others, including family.
Lichtmann reveals the extent to which such loathsome individuals get away with duping themselves and others until they eventually get caught and are appropriately punished. (clue not with a prison sentence which would be too easy and produce recidivism). To spin out his ironic and amusing morality tale, Lichtmann employs humorous tropes, revolving and mysterious plot twists, minimalist and spare cinematic story telling, and refreshing characterizations portrayed with intuitive detail by the ensemble cast.
Especially with his presentation of the nerdy anti-hero, brainiac attorney, Lucas, portrayed with bumbling, Woody Allenesque likability by Martin Slipak, Lichtmann creates a mystery/comedy morality piece which begins with the wedding of Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), Lucas’ brother/attorney who is marrying Paula (Eugenia Capizzano), a competent attorney in his firm. Lucas has prepared a speech for Max that we assume will be read proclaiming the usual good wishes for their life’s journey together as they uphold their faith and the moral tenets of the religion in which they are marrying. However, this quirky film is ripe with surprises. Immediately, Lichtmann sets us revolving in a flashback days before the ceremony and this peculiar moment between Max and Lucas.
By degrees, we learn the dynamics of the law firm and the relationships between the players who are anything but religious or moral with a few exceptions. In the midst of the frenetic pace of assisting his brother with the difficult and intricate details of litigation, Lucas and his brother go for a drink at a typical watering hole. It is there that he meets an entrancing woman who shares many of his interests. Though this is not Lucas’ usual routine, they spend the night together at his place. In the morning the woman has disappeared. Also missing are thousands of dollars Lucas took out from his bank account to make a transaction the following day. The money represents his hard earned financial savings.
Heartbroken and feeling foolish for being easily deceived, Lucas embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the woman’s identity and the disappearance of his money. Lichtmann cleverly unravels the clues of both through Lucas’ acumen. We appreciate his cleverness and his intuitive knowledge gleaned from his voracious reading of mystery and crime novels. Like a bloodhound he tracks the scent of the woman’s persona. Her trail and the missing money grow intense with obscure leads that Lucas assiduously follows. We are lured to solving the mystery ahead of Lucas, compelled by his intelligence. Lichtmann’s writing is sharp; he knows how to spur us to the chase without revealing too much to make the surprises less enticing.
During this process of discovery, we are engaged with the sly humor, character surprises, and plot twists. We discover who various individuals are and of what they are capable. Everyone is under suspicion. Lucas comes to understand with a discerning eye the hypocrisies and venerabilities of family, Max’ fiancee, the firm’s friends and enemies, and Lucas’ friend, Pelican. All is not what Lucas anticipates, but what was opaque is made clear by trial, error, and his determination. The result is shocking. With steadfast courage and self-honesty, Lucas allows the truth to unfold and his eyes to see it.
By the conclusion, the nerdy anti-hero solves the mystery and empowers himself to confront his own waffling discernment which he sharpens to a still point so that he can stand in the light of courage and do what is necessary with confidence. The little nerdy brother has grown up and Max must reckon with him in a different way. Lichtmann flashes forward to the wedding and finally, we get to hear Max’ speech. It is not what we initially thought it might be, but it is satisfying and indicates that Max finally acknowledges who his brother is: loving, brilliant, canny. Lichtmann’s ending is anti-climactic, and shifts the height of understatement and irony to a subtle advantage. Indeed, Lichtmann implies that leaving one’s enemy to his own “amoral” conscience may be the worst punishment of all.
How to Win Enemies is screening at the 25th New York Jewish Film Festival Thursday, January 21st at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.