Friday April 23, 1999

     Scarcely a convincing moment unfolds in the truly terrible "La Cucaracha," a misguided attempt to tell the old story of the despondent gringo who goes south of the border to find himself and hits the skids before finally finding redemption. Writer James McManus and director Jack Perez make the equally old mistake of taking their inspiration from a zillion vintage movies rather than from life, with the result that most everything everyone says or does seems contrived and artificial.
     What's more, McManus weighs down the film with a ton of phony dialogue yet comes up short in characterization, while Perez displays not a scintilla of style in telling McManus' story. One awkwardly staged scene follows another with little concern for the kind of nuance, detail and shading essential to bringing virtually any movie alive. After 94 increasingly tedious, clunky minutes, "La Cucaracha" mercifully grinds to a halt.
     Eric Roberts is this picture's gringo--a bored New Jersey office worker who runs off to Mexico with the vague idea of writing a novel but instead spends his days knocking back one cerveza after another at a village cantina. Along comes McManus, as Louis, a garrulous flaky type, definitely not the kind of guy who inspires trust, but who nevertheless succeeds in persuading Roberts' Walter Pool to do a hit job for a local grandee (Joaquim de Almeida) for a mere $1,000. For his trouble Walter winds up shot in the spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. But at last he's found a purpose in life: revenge, a pursuit potentially derailed when his life is saved by a beautiful woman (Tara Crespo) he has worshiped in secret.
     Roberts brings to Walter his characteristic passion and intensity but the role is too underdeveloped to sustain such a no-holding-back performance. If Roberts goes way over the top, he does give the film some life. Few films can contain Roberts' naked emotion and raw energy, but when they do, he can be terrific, as he was recently in Randal Kleiser's "It's My Party," in which he played a man dying of AIDS who gathers friends and family to bid them farewell before taking his life. De Almeida, a preeminent star of the Spanish cinema, has a comparatively small role and fares better than Roberts as a man who would rather see his son dead than gay. Newcomer Crespo displays more beauty than acting ability. "La Cucaracha" is best left to cockroaches.


La Cucaracha, 1999. R, for violence and language. A White Rose Entertainment and Flashpoint presentation of a 7.23 production. Executive producers David Forrest and Beau Rogers. Producers Richard Mann and Michael A. Candela. Director Jack Perez. Screenplay James McManus. Cinematographer Shawn Maurer. Editor John Pace. Music Martin Davich. Costumes Elaine Montalvo. Production designer Reiko Kobayashi. Set decorator Suzan Katcher. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Eric Roberts as Walter Pool. Joaquim de Almeida as Jose Guerras. James McManus as Louis Woodstock. Tara Crespo as Lourdes Aguirre.