Some basic plot ideas become so intimately associated with a single classic film that it’s nearly impossible to use them without seeming to beg for the comparison. For example, a movie about a poor individual who depends upon a vehicle for his livelihood, and then loses that vehicle and must regain it, will inevitably be seen, for better or worse, as a riff on The Bicycle Thief. That’s a tough role model to live up to, and A Better Life, which transplants the scenario to East LA and its illegal-immigrant workforce, only really succeeds in avoiding embarrassment.
- A Better Life
- Demián Bichir, José Julián, Dolores Heredia.
- Directed by Chris Weitz.
- Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Here, the hapless victim is Carlos (Demián Bichir, best known in the U.S. as Nancy Botwin’s political-thug husband on Weeds), a Mexican-born gardener who, despite not having a driver’s license, jumps at the opportunity to purchase a truck that will allow him to make a decent living at last. When the truck inevitably gets stolen, his teenage son, Luis (José Julián), volunteers to help find it, even though he’s always regarded Dad as an old-world sap and has started hanging out with gangbangers. Their gradual bonding is just one element in what aims to be an evenhanded, non-sensational portrait of the hardscrabble lives of folks we usually hear about only when politicians want to appear tough or compassionate vis-à-vis our border patrol.
If you had to guess the titles of two previous movies directed by the same person who directed this one, would they be American Pie and The Twilight Saga: New Moon? It’s admirable of Chris Weitz to tackle such a serious subject, but his brand of glossy professionalism doesn’t really suit the material, which was already in danger of coming across as overly earnest. Nor can Bichir’s soulful, richly detailed performance quite overcome the sense that everything is playing out just as you’d expected, and that the film is essentially a well-intentioned tract inexpertly disguised as a personal drama. Certainly The Bicycle Thief’s wrenching pathos is nowhere to be found. Too high a bar to clear? Maybe, but that’s the risk you take when you borrow from the best.