Witching & Bitching opens with a heist sequence that could only come from the imagination of Álex De La Iglesia: a pawn shop stick-up on Madrid’s tourist-packed Puerta De Sol, carried out by a gang of costumed impersonators and masterminded by a silver-painted Jesus—who has brought along his 8-year-old son in order to get some bonding time. The robbery goes south; Minnie Mouse gets cornered by police, SpongeBob SquarePants is gunned down on the sidewalk, and the argentine savior is forced to hightail it out of Madrid in a taxi, bringing along his son, a green army man, and two hostages. Pursued by two clueless cops and the Jesus’ ex-wife, the unlikely fivesome—four in the cab, one in the trunk—end up in the sticks, where they stumble upon a coven of man-eating Basque witches.
De La Iglesia specializes in the kind of nutty narrative zigzags typified by that last clause. Since his 1993 debut, the hyperviolent, dystopian black comedy Acción Mutante, he’s built a reputation on movies that plop misfit heroes into convoluted scenarios. In 1995’s Day Of The Beast—his second and arguably best feature—a diminutive priest, a metalhead, and a cheesy TV psychic team up to defeat the Antichrist; the best of his recent films, 2010’s The Last Circus, centers on a doughy clown exacting revenge in Franco-era Spain. Plenty of movies sympathize with outcasts, but only De La Iglesia’s sympathize with their ugliest feelings: envy, resentment, and self-loathing.
But the male protagonists of Witching & Bitching aren’t misfits. José (Hugo Silva), the guy in the silver Jesus get-up, is a divorced deadbeat who believes his ex-wife (Macarena Gómez) is continually undermining him by questioning his parenting skills. (She has a point.) His accomplice Antonio (Mario Casas), the green army man, participates in the robbery because he feels emasculated by his smart, successful, and sexually adventurous girlfriend. Cab driver Manuel (Jaime Ordóñez) is a kindred spirit, similarly convinced that women have too much power. The robbers’ loot consists of a duffel bag full of pawned engagement rings.
The real misfits are the witches, a band of oddballs whose home base, Zugarramurdi, was at the center of the largest witch trial in history. De La Iglesia has long made a point of avoiding conventionally handsome leads; if Jose, Antonio, and Manuel don’t look like De La Iglesia heroes, then the witches and their male sidekicks certainly do: batty matriarch Maritxu (Terele Pávez), who wears steel dentures; her googly-eyed servant (Enrique Villén, a dead ringer for Marty Feldman); Graciana (one-time Almodóvar regular Carmen Maura), the skirt-suit-clad high priestess; her scene-stealing son Luismi (Javier Botet, the rail-thin contortionist best known for playing female monsters in Mama and the [Rec] series), who has spent most of his life living under a toilet, with only a stack of Zane Grey paperbacks for company. Not coincidentally, two of De La Iglesia’s favorite actors, Santiago Segura and Carlos Areces, turn up in drag as members of the coven.
It’s not that the witches are the real heroes of Witching & Bitching. Rather, the script—by De La Iglesia and his regular co-writer, Jorge Guerricaechevarría—stacks the deck against the male protagonists. The viewer doesn’t feel compelled to root for anyone in particular, and can just sit back and enjoy the movie’s organized mayhem—catacomb chases, dismemberments, bouts of special-effects spell-casting.
If anything, it’s a little too organized. Despite his affection for the unusual, De La Iglesia prefers rigid blockbuster structures, with every film invariably building to a grand third-act conflagration. He also has a weakness for artificial dream-girl love stories, represented here by the unconvincing romance between José and young witch Eva (Carolina Bang). In the context of a seething, angry movie like The Last Circus, these conventions can seem transgressive; here, they feel constricting. Nonetheless, the movie is sustained by its director’s sense of tasteless pop-cultural fantasy, opening with a pictorial history of witchcraft that concludes with a photo of Margaret Thatcher, and climaxing with its not-quite-heroes trying to outrun an ogreish, CGI Venus Of Willendorf that tramples indiscriminately.