Arriving with a surprising amount of notoriety due to controversy from a billboard promotion, "A Day Without a Mexican" is a satire that is more bemusing than wicked. A film content to let some mild comedy carry its straightforward message rather than trying to say something more profound, it uses the well-trodden mockumentary form and a clever premise to drive home its point that Latinos are culturally, socially and economically underappreciated in California.
Directed by Sergio Arau (son of "Like Water for Chocolate" filmmaker Alfonso Arau), the movie opens with a white woman named Mary Jo Quintana (Maureen Flannigan) waking up to discover that her Latino husband, Roberto (Eduardo Palomo), has vanished along with their young son.
She soon learns that they are among the 14 million Latinos from across the state who have disappeared seemingly overnight.
This triggers the expected media frenzy, with pundits and scientists venturing guesses as to what is happening. A mysterious fog has shrouded the borders and coasts of California, blocking travel and communication with the outside world. Abandoned cars clog surface streets (but oddly enough, not freeways).
The ramifications for non-Latinos are immediate. With one-third of the workforce gone, the economy is a shambles. Among the missing are doctors and lawyers, police officers and firefighters, gardeners and cooks.
There are no migrant workers to harvest the abundant fields of the San Joaquin Valley, effectively cutting off the supply of fresh produce. Schools are closed because, as a graphic helpfully points out, 20% of the state's kindergarten through 12th grade teachers are Latino.
The film's protagonist is Lila Rod (Yareli Arizmendi, the director's wife and co-writer of the screenplay), a Latina newscaster urged by her station manager to reinstate the --riguez to her surname and roll her Rs to maximize her Latino-ness. Lila inexplicably doesn't disappear, and she becomes a media target herself.
For a film taking on such blatantly political subject matter, "A Day Without a Mexican" is oddly inoffensive. The portrayal of a Pete Wilson-like state senator (John Getz) who made his name as an anti-immigration proponent and ascends to acting governor during the crisis is balanced by an enlightened grower (Muse Watson), who pines for his best friend, José (Joaquin Garrido).
Arau and Arizmendi, with help from co-writer Sergio Guerrero, expanded to feature-length their 1998 short, also called "A Day Without a Mexican." Unfortunately, the movie feels like exactly that, a fine concept for a short stretched beyond its capacity. Much of the humor is overly familiar, and the broader elements feel strained when it veers toward melodrama in its final third.
Plotwise, the movie doesn't make a lot of sense. The extended running time gives you time to question things such as why doesn't this mysterious fog cause even more calamity? After all, with communication completely cut off, wouldn't institutions like banks have some difficulty? Shouldn't there be rioting? What about the large power grids we learned so much about during the rolling blackouts of a few years ago? Why are the local television stations able to broadcast?
None of these questions are ultimately very important, but they are the type that arise when the mind isn't given enough to do during a movie. Even the overarching question of what happened to the Latinos goes essentially unanswered, even once the crisis is resolved, making for a pretty limp ending.
The movie is at its most successful when it parodies the news coverage of the events. Glib newscasters and politicians mangling cultural nuances is always good for a laugh. The film's title alludes to the disparaging way that Latinos, regardless of where they are from, are frequently labeled as "Mexicans."
The filmmakers are rather generous in their assessment of mankind. The movie doesn't simply write off the contemporary Latino's plight to the evils of bias and hatred. It sees it as a residue of ignorance and aims to educate.
As satire, however, the film is toothless. It doesn't ask the important questions of why the situation continues. It's satisfied to point out an injustice without going any deeper, satisfied to remain infotainment, distributing some facts amid the laughs that may make a few people ponder but won't necessarily ruffle any feathers.
Perhaps it is the filmmakers' intent to make that one bold statement — "Notice us! Appreciate us!" — and then move on. There is something to be said about keeping a politically charged message simple, but it also feels safe and geared to maximize the box office.
'A Day Without a Mexican'
MPAA rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Times guidelines: The rating seems unduly harsh.
Yareli Arizmendi...Lila Rodriguez
Caroline Aaron...Aunt Gigi
Maureen Flannigan...Mary Jo Quintana
John Getz...Sen. Abercrombie
Muse Watson...Louis McClaire
A Televisa Cine release. Director Sergio Arau. Producer Eckehardt Von Damm, Isaac Artenstein. Executive producers Federico Gonzalez Compean, Luis Fernandez. Screenplay by Yareli Arizmendi, Sergio Arau, Sergio Guerrero, based on the short "A Day Without a Mexican." Cinematographer Alan Caudillo. Editor Daniel A. Fort. Costume designer Carlos Brown. Music Juan J. Colomer. Production designer Anthony Ribero Stabley. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.