Giant cruise ships are inherently ridiculous. You pay a lot of money to get places really slowly. The food, while plentiful, is never that good and the evening's entertainment is provided by performers who couldn't book a gig on dry land. But I've done many sailings and it is undeniable a weird magic spell accompanies the salt spray. Yes, you are on an enormous floating Radisson, but you are also out at sea and the people around you aren't strangers they are fellow travelers. Great setting for a screwball comedy.
"A moonlit deck is a woman's business office," Rita Hayworth says in Preston Sturges' steamer-set masterpiece The Lady Eve, and the players in Daniel Monzón's Yucatán are wise enough to lean into this enhanced romanticism. It also doubles-down on that earlier grifter classic. As we watch the boat load-up, we see there isn't just one dirty rotten scoundrel on board, but two, and they aren't exactly pals.
Connecting the house pianist, Clyderman (Rodrigo De La Serna), and a stowaway named Lucas (Luis Tosar) is one of the shipboard dancers and aide-de-con, Verónica (Stephanie Cayo). This trip sails from Barcelona to the Yucatán (via Casablanca and Tenerife) and is Clyderman's watery turf. Lucas is supposed to stick to the Mediterranean. So why is he here? He claims that he's fallen in love with Verónica and wants to take her away from this life, and that may even be true, but that can't be the whole story.
Before we learn it, though, we get to watch Clyderman in action, finding his marks, setting up elaborate schemes, utilizing his arsenal of actors and stagecraft. An excursion to a Moroccan diamond-seller (and, later, police station) maybe isn't the most progressive portrayal of North Africa, put it plays into the fears of the rich dummies he plans to fleece. In between, there are peppy musical numbers mixing traditional Spanish instruments and Latin jazz. Hey, this is like being on vacation!
A widower (Joan Pera) is on board with his three daughters and two sons-in-law, and Lucas works out a smart way to befriend him. He is a kind baker who recently won €120 million through the lottery, and while happy to bring his family on a trip (especially his wide-eyed and cheery unmarried daughter) he's aware that a windfall like this can only bring bad karma. The bad karma is Lucas, conniving and uncaring and willing to tell any lie to get his hands on that money.
Soon Clyderman learns Lucas' score and starts his own scheme. Then Verónica realizes its time she be her own agent and begins working her own angles. (With one of her fellow dancers, she eyes the bachelorette heiress.) Also, maybe there are other con artists aboard? Everyone from the card dealers to the Russian head of security seems to be on the take. "He has no limits! No scruples! He f--king rules!" one grifter says in awe of another.
If traveling by steamer is old school, so are the madcap set pieces in Yucatán. There are drugged drinks, dames in sexy outfits, overweight guys in speedos, a busload of yelling senior citizens, guys in koala bear masks making violent threats. At one point, one of our competing thieves hurls someone overboard, but doesn't want to kill the guy, so he gets dropped in a lifeboat with a bunch of bananas. Yes, technically, that will keep someone alive until (hopefully) another ship comes along; but visually it looks straight out of Woody Woodpecker. This is not unwelcome.
Yucatán is not important cinema. The ending is particularly ludicrous. But it is a great example of Netflix taking an international title (in this case Spain) and plopping it down in front of a massive audience and saying "give this a spin." Unless you are one of those philistines who refuses to watch anything with subtitles, it's virtually impossible not to be amused by this picture. Like the limitless buffet and late show with dancing girls, it's a simple pleasure, but one with guaranteed success.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel. Follow him on Twitter.