When American Reunion, the fourth film in the American Pie series (not counting all of the deplorable straight-to-DVD spin-offs), came to theaters last summer, it was a quick reminder that it really has been thirteen years since the original film. The original film is by no means a comedy classic in the ranks of Some Like it Hot or Tootsie, but thanks to smart casting decisions, honest efforts at drawing well-rounded characters and well-executed set pieces, it had its moments that the ensuing films simply did not match.
The first film was the only one written and directed by the Weitz brothers Chris and Paul, who were labeled as up and comers in the cinematic comedy scene at the turn of the century. They followed up American Pie with mixed results: Down to Earth earned them atrocious reviews, About a Boy earned them an Oscar nomination.
The two brothers have been making films independent of each other ever since, and their choices have been, um peculiar. Certainly they’ve strayed from their comedic roots. For Pete’s sake, Chris directed a Twilight film, a film which was hilarious, albeit for unintentional reasons. He continues to move further away from the franchise that made him famous with his 2011 film A Better Life, a sobering and moving drama about a family of illegal Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles.
The family isn’t much of a family at all; it’s a father (played beautifully by Demian Bichir) and his teenage son (Jose Julian). The father, Carlos, works as a gardener with one person. His son, Luis, is an irresponsible troublemaker, at the age when inclusion of the local gangs is starting to become a real possibility. Carlos is aware of this impending danger, and wants to move out of the bad neighborhood they currently reside in so that Luis is not surrounded by these gangs. He wants a better life for the both of them.
So when his partner offers to sell him his truck, and therefore the business, Carlos borrows the money necessary to do so. Carlos is gleeful; the American dream has swiftly become a reality. That is, until his truck is stolen by a day laborer he employs. Obviously, Carlos can’t go to the police; they’ll send him back to Mexico and won’t ever wonder about the whereabouts of the truck. Carlos has to take matters into his own hands, and enlists Luis to help with the search.
Remind you of anything? Ok, the plot is definitely similar to that of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. In fact, Weitz seems to adhere to De Sica’s playbook quite strongly, lifting scene ideas from that classic, like a lunch between father and son where the father lays his heart on the table and drinks a little too much. It’s a trap that Weitz runs into: There’s no way that you can make a film so similar to that of De Sica’s classic and come out a total winner.
Yet Weitz is a skillful enough storyteller that A Better Life isn’t so much a remake as it is a reinterpretation for a different time and a different culture. While it is never explicitly political, A Better Life displays a humanist tale about the consequences of decades of inconsistent and xenophobic immigration policies. We see the fragile families and the dire economic circumstances they are forced to endure as they are ostracized into their own little corner filled with drugs and imminent danger.
Weitz is a smart filmmaker, and despite the strong screenplay written by Eric Eason and the lush Alexandre Desplat score, he knows that the greatest weapon he has here is his leading man, Demian Bichir.
Bichir has long been a solid leading man in Mexican cinema, yet has only recently crossed over to American screens. In his first leading role in an English language movie, he is sensational. His eyes are channels into Carlos’ soul, and they guide us through this tale. The dignity he brings to the role is nothing short of remarkable. There’s little doubt that Bichir will be headlining more films in the future.
With this film, Weitz downscales remarkably. The entire budget for A Better Life probably doesn’t even match the catering budget for his previous two pictures, The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass. It turns out that Weitz acquits himself well when his scope is scaled modestly, and he doesn’t have to concern himself with all of the technological hullabaloo. Why should he when he can coax performances like the one he gets from Mr. Bichir?
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