The original sin of the anthology film is that no matter how tightly controlled it is, no matter how thematically tight, and no matter how aesthetically consistent, there's always going to be a segment that isn't as good as the others, and it's going to feel like it showed up in the worst possible place to fuck up the flow of the whole thing. In the case of Wild Tales, recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from Argentina, which finds Damián Szifrón writing and directing six otherwise unconnected short stories about the highs and owes of seeking revenge, the structure is almost perfectly designed to make the whole experience seem less than it deserves. I do not gather that this is the consensus opinion, but for my money, the film begins with its absolute best (and shortest) segment, gently and almost steadily declines in quality until it goes off the cliff it its last, worst (and longest) segment, the only one of the six where it's obvious within the first few minutes how it intends to end, and the only one to build virtually its entire narrative on hoary old clichés - in particular, "women are like this, but men are like this" gags involving infidelity and the wildly over-the-top reaction to same. It's shrill finale to a generally whip-smart collection of social satires, and it leaves a sour aftertaste that disproportionately affects the whole movie's effectiveness.

Still, five out of six is an exemplary batting average for a movie of this sort, and Szifrón's fearless embrace of the blackest comedy gives the whole film a striking personality, even in its weakest patches (and there's a nasty tendency for the individual segments to either begin blandly or fizzle out - only the relatively brief first two are at a steady level from start to finish). Good or bad, Wild Tales comes from a sparklingly nasty and savagely witty place that isn't like much else; the presence of everyone's favorite florid melodramatist Pedro Almodóvar as one of the five producers (along with his brother Agustin) is enough to prime us for the ebullient bad taste Szifrón exercises, but there's cutting criticism and anger behind Wild Tales that goes beyond anything found in Almodóvar. It is, whatever else is true, it's own thing, and that's spectacularly valuable.

The punchy opening segment, which finds passengers on a plane discovering their unexpected connections to a failed musician named Pasternak, sets the tone of things perfectly. The humor is a bubbling pot of farcical absurdity - before the shape of the thing begins to clarify itself, the continual pile-up of random jokes is some of the best sustained comedy I've seen in years - that builds to a terrific bleak punchline, and it follows the best rules of sketch comedy, in that it makes its point, sells its gag, and gets the hell out. Nothing else that happens for the remainder of the movie is so focused or deliberate, and this, too, is a sin of the anthology format: starting off strong means that the rest of the feature will feel like pulled punches. That said, "Pasternak" couldn't ever be moved; its brevity functions perfectly as a prologue.

Still and all, it casts a shadow that the rest of the film can't escape. "Las ratas", the second segment, which also feels more like a sketch than a short film, does the best job of darting in, stabbing, and vanishing back into the shadows, and its much tighter dramatic scope - a waitress (Rita Cortese) and cook (Julieta Zylberberg) debate the morality of poisoning a vile mobbed-up businessman (César Bordón), and the cook's increasing impatience with the waitress's refusal to take her just revenge eventually takes an abrupt, extravagant turn - allows it to examine the social and personal impact of revenge more clearly than "Pasternak". It's not as funny, or as effortless, but it still makes for a combined opening gambit that starts Wild Tales at full speed with impressive braininess for something so prone to sophomoric jokes.

But after that, Wild Tales never quite finds its sweet spot again. The third segment, "El más fuerte", has a strong beginning and stronger close, as it examines two men (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Walter Donado) getting into an increasingly disturbed and violent pissing match over road etiquette. But it's also somewhat belabored in its pursuit of a fairly straightforward idea - it's by far the most obvious and predictable of the shorts prior to the last one - and there's simply not that much modulation of its one gag. Segment four, "Bombita" makes some killer social critiques by the end of its tale of a normal working man (Ricardo Darín, the castmember with the biggest international exposure) buffeted by random chance and bad luck until he decides to turn himself into a anti-bureaucracy terrorist, but it takes a long time to find its footing, during which point it's just an exercise in cringe humor. Segment five, "La propuesta", has the opposite problem: it's satiric points about the way the very rich exploit everybody else to avoid having to deal with their own problems are all scored in the early going, and it becomes eminently clear that Szifrón couldn't figure out how to end it.

And then we get to that ending, "Hasta que la muerte nos separe", with a bride (Erica Rivas) exploding with rage when she find out that her new husband (Diego Gentile) had an affair with one of their guests a while back. There are no insights here, only musty observations about A Woman Scorned, turned up to 11, and it's stretched out far beyond the breaking point for something that follows such an obvious predetermined line (the only thing that's not totally predictable about it is its concluding joke, and that's more because the joke is such a random piece of provocation dropped in for no obvious reason other than shock value. It sucks the last air out of a film that developed a slow leak around the 20 minute mark, and more than anything else, it leaves Wild Tales feeling like a series of naughty anecdotes instead of an insightful commentary on human misbehavior. Which is deeply unfortunate, given how well it occupies that more daunting, complex territory here and there throughout its running time.

Narrative lapses notwithstanding, Szifrón's sense of timing and his immaculate control of tone cannot be doubted: this kind of lacerating black comedy is terrifyingly difficult to pull off without lapsing into either banal niceness or unpleasant sourness, and he keeps the tone right on target throughout, even when his plots are starting to fail him. It's an energetic beast, mixing style, pacing, emotional mood, and acting style to great effect - whatever else is true, it's never boring - and while it ultimately collapses under the weight of its own personality, how wonderful to have that kind of dynamic, challenging, and at times insightful personality in the first place!