‘Rotting in the Sun’ Review: Social Media Phenom Jordan Firstman Self-Parodies in Unhinged Indie Satire


“Only the optimist commits suicide, optimists who no longer succeed at being optimists.” The Emil Cioran line, introduced in the first scene of Sebastián Silva’s morbid black comedy “Rotting in the Sun,” initially feels like the key to understanding the Chilean filmmaker’s latest endeavor. “The others,” the quote continues, “having no reason to live, why would they have any to die?” More than merely placing suicide at the heart of Silva’s fictionalized take on himself, the quote’s pop intellectualism sets the tone for what soon becomes, in true Silva fashion, an absurdist meditation on death wishes, social media influencers (the film stars Jordan Firstman, also as himself) and 21st-century nihilism.

When we first see “Sebastián” reading Cioran, he’s in Mexico City. Adrift with his thoughts and seemingly uninspired, he’s more and more drawn to the idea (if perhaps not the actual reality) of killing himself. From what he gathers, it’s easy to get phenobarbital in Mexico — an easy way to guarantee going into a slumber he’ll never wake up from. His friends insist instead he just whisk himself away to Zicateca for some much needed time away from his diet of poppers and Ketamine. Maybe in that notoriously gay nude beach he’ll find inspiration for more of the phallocentric art that litters his sloppy, under-construction studio/living space.

It’s in Zicateca where he first meets Jordan — not so much at the beach where Silva and camera alike cannot help but be distracted by the full-frontal male nudity, but at the ocean, where Jordan is flailing about and almost drowning. Sebastián comes to Jordan’s rescue and then almost drowns himself, sparking a chance encounter made all the more significant once the social media influencer best known for his viral impressions confesses he’d just seen “Silva’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” the night before. Only Sebastián has no time for Jordan’s needy antics (“Come meet my friends,” he tells the filmmaker later at a party, “you’ll hate them”), nor for his TV show pitch — at least, not until a network shows more interest in it than anything he has in mind. Begrudgingly, then, he ends up inviting the aggressively banal Jordan to work in Mexico City only to disappear before Firstman even arrives.

Viewers are made privy to why Sebastián is not there to greet Jordan and work on his intentionally vapid sounding “You Are Me” series. But that is best left unspoiled — even if said “shocking” twist will feel familiar to fans of Silva’s previous work. The “Nasty Baby” filmmaker, who’s long found ways of pushing his contemporary satires into increasingly unhinged (and oft-violent) territory, here again turns a seemingly simple premise into an outrageous (and sex-fueled) romp once Jordan begins suspecting Silva’s housekeeper Vero (played by The Maid’s Catalina Saavedra) of some wrongdoing.

With a premise that turns on itself given its metafictional conceit (trust Silva to turn his own disappearance into a plot foil that nicely riffs on Firstman’s presumably narcissistic social media instincts), “Rotting in the Sun” has plenty in its head. A philosopher’s take on optimism and mortality, after all, opens the film. And even while it flirts with more grounded themes — including the international gentrification of Mexico City, gay male promiscuity and the latent class warfare between the likes of Vero and Silva’s friends and colleagues — the film seems to mostly set the table for interesting discussions.

This is especially the case in the way Silva makes Firstman’s clownish approach to life and fame both funnier and more melancholy than what the comedian projects in his viral posts. Sebastián may bristle at Jordan’s seemingly empty platitudes (“You don’t become what you want. You become what you believe.”), but the film nevertheless captures the ethos of a 21st-century online life like few films before. When Jordan compels his followers to “cyberbully this bitch” as a way to get Sebastián to show himself after going missing, the tone is both earnest and ironic in equal measure; there’s posturing here but for an aggressively sincere goal.

Collaborating again with Pedro Peirano, his co-writer on “The Maid,” Silva keys into the idiosyncratic sensibility that’s made him an indie darling since that award-winning 2009 film first announced him as a talent to watch at the Sundance Film Festival. After all, he’s the kind of filmmaker who can seamlessly stage broad comedy (involving dogs and feces) alongside self-involved philosophical musings all scored to a cover of The Cranberries; who can artfully deploy a double-sided dildo as an apt prop and handily depend on his viewers to recognize the “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket Jordan sports as giving him an added timely subtext.

With its tricky tone and its wildly ambitious themes, it’s not surprising to find Silva’s outrageous, salacious film stumbling as it brings its many threads into focus. Like Sebastián’s art and his journal in the film, “Rotting in the Sun” remains a patchwork of quotes and ideas and provocations hastily if hilariously stitched together. Saavedra and Firstman make for quite a comedic pair (particularly when speaking across an instant translation app) but their match, no matter how intentionally, goes nowhere. The ending, as absurd as anything else in the film, doesn’t so much offer a conclusion as a blunt curtain call to its K- and poppers-fueled comedy of errors that’s wholly enjoyable if a tad too disposable.

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