||This picture, which is reportedly an expansion of a short film, is an example of a promising premise without a successful follow-through. The idea is that suddenly one morning all (or almost all) Latinos disappear from California, and the state is cut off from all contact with the outside world--direct, phone, or internet--by a strange and impenetrable pink fog that has settled along its borders. Chaos soon descends as those left behind struggle with the fact that those whom they’ve loved (or hated) are no longer around to serve their needs, and the jobs filled by the disappeared go undone.
There are two basic ways that the filmmakers could treat this concept. One is to turn it into a “Twilight Zone” sort of episode, earnest and didactic. The other is to shape it as a sharp satire in the fashion of a “Dr. Strangelove.” But in “A Day Without A Mexican” Sergio Arau makes the mistake of trying to have it both ways and does neither well. Using a technique that involves interlocking story threads, multiple characters, quick cutting and frequent shifts of perspective, as well as periodic written legends to provide statistical data and appearances by phony commentators, conspiracy theorists and Rapture fanatics, the picture vacillates between preachy tract and bland comedy. Though the most important character is Lila Rodriguez (Yareli Arizmendi), a TV reporter who seems to be the only person of Hispanic descent in the whole state not to disappear, and who thus becomes the focus of weird scientific and political scrutiny, perhaps the most telling ones are the two McClaires: father Louis (Muse Watson), a salt-of-the-earth citrus farmer who’s blissfully unprejudiced, and his son George (Bru Muller), leader of an anti-immigrant group who wants to sell the family groves. In them the extremes of attitude are clearly expressed. But, of course, there are others: a teacher (Maureen Flannigan) whose husband (Eduardo Palomo), as well as one of their children, has disappeared; two Keystone Kop border control officers; and a bigoted state senator (John Getz) who becomes, by forfeit, the acting governor. And that’s just the top of the list. All are involved in a whole series of episodes designed to teach the lesson that nurture is more important than nature--that how one’s raised is more significant than the accidental ethnicity of one’s bloodline--a nice moral, perhaps, but one that ultimately the picture clubs us over the head with. The delivery of the message alternates with plenty of slapstick moments and humorous asides that are just too comfortable and obvious for the movie’s good. The comedy ranges from bland to blander, when it should be going for the jugular.
There’s an amateurish quality to the production that drags things down, too. Arau’s direction is no more focused than his script, and the jumpy, hand-held camerawork by Alan Caudillo is simply irritating. (Most of the interiors have a cheap claustrophobic feel, too.) By and large the performances are mediocre as well. Arizmendi suffers all too nobly, and Getz struggles to find the right clownish tone for the governor’s stand-in. (So does Melinda Allen, as his scatterbrain wife who doesn’t know how to make cereal and milk without the maid’s help.) The best work, simply because it’s the most unforced and natural, comes from Watson who, with his vaguely Willie Nelson looks, provides an oasis of restfulness in the mania that surrounds him.
In the end, it’s appropriate that the unexplained cause of the mass disappearance (which, of course, resolves itself as suddenly as it occurred), is fog, because “A Day Without a Mexican” is itself just too muddy and wispy to make its promising premise work. It’s a movie without a sufficiently coherent approach to some potentially provocative material.