DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: A Better Life

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Better Life

A Better Life (2011) dir. Chris Weitz
Starring: Demián Bichir, José Julián, Joaquín Cosio


By Greg Klymkiw

The ads for A Better Life proudly proclaim: "From The Director of About a Boy". This is hardly a ringing endorsement. It's also misleading.

The latter picture is one of Working Title's cookie-cutter Hugh Grant comedies-with-heart that, in spite of a central relationship involving a man and boy, bears little resemblance to this somewhat better movie. In fact, I suspect that anyone who liked the insufferable Grant picture will not like this one and conversely, those who either hated or would never go to About a Boy, might genuinely find merit in A Better Life.

Such are the vagaries of contemporary movie marketing.

The reality then, is that none of Weitz's previous pictures (American Pie,Down to Earth and - bleeech! - Twilight: New Moon) resemble this one.

Its closest relative outside of the, uh, Weitz canon, is Vittorio DeSica's haunting 1948 classic of neo-realism The Bicycle Thief, and as such I trust the above mentioned tag line is probably best not replaced by the reality of this one: "Kind of like The Bicycle Thief, but not as good".

That said, A Better Life is a decent enough picture that it can go down the gullet with relative ease by those not seeking explosions, rapid cutting and a cacophonous soundtrack.

It's at least about something – not a boy, mind you, but something.

Working from a screenplay by Eric Eason and screen story by Roger L. Simon, Weitz tells the semi-moving story of Carlos (Demián Bichir), an illegal alien and single father working as a gardener in Los Angeles. His young teenage son, Luis (José Julián), whiles life away watching garbage on television, wandering the streets with friends, being mildly attracted to gang life and skipping school.

Carlos is desperate to make their situation better, as he's beginning to feel an even greater divide between himself and his son. Fearing his spawn will seek out the wrong crowd and become just another statistic, he buys a truck, garden equipment and a healthy client-base from his retiring boss and sets up his own business. On the first day of the rest of his life, Carlos hires Martinez (Joaquín Cosio), a destitute migrant labourer, treats the man with overwhelming kindness and is rewarded (NOT!) when the hired hand steals his truck.

Carlos begins a desperate search to find the stolen truck and is joined in his quest by Luis. Here, Father and Son bond – like they never have before!

Cue the violins, please!

In spite of the narrative's been-there-done-that quality, the movie is often compelling. There are, however, two major problems with the picture and they are thus:

1. The screenplay loads up hurdle upon hurdle for poor Carlos. Each one seems more insurmountable than the last, and the suspense on this front is considerable. However, a pattern sets in far too early where there always appears some deus ex machina device – usually in the form of a decent soul (because to be human is to be saintly) and Presto! – a solution to the problem offers itself up. More often than not, Carlos aggressively and actively places himself in situations where he then passively accepts bone-tosses in positive directions. This is all just a tad disappointing, especially since Carlos doesn't actively solve any problems until he finds and extricates the truck. (I'm not spoiling anything. It's very clear halfway in that he's going to find his truck – mostly because the script telegraphs it from miles away due to the above mentioned easy-way-out mechanics.)

2. The ending is a total crock of bull droppings. It's pure, feel-good fantasy land. In addition to the annoying and incessant above-named hand-of-God saves (which I was prepared to forgive), the final 10 or so minutes strains all credibility and goes completely out of its way to present – UGH! – hope.

Hope? Give me a break. It's not only a jaw-dropping stretch, but it works to scuttle a number of really fine elements – the most important being Weitz's surprisingly strong direction.

I was so impressed with the mise-en-scene. Every frame is packed with finely wrought kitchen sink details. The exterior shots are especially impressive. Every moment, every dramatic beat and virtually every exterior frame has a full life exploding behind and around the main action. The sense of place is extremely acute. It feels like Weitz is adhering strictly to a neo-realist approach by making us believe a whole world is pulsating, teeming with life and death.

The performances of all the leads are beyond reproach, but the true revelation – the one in which Weitz could/should be taken seriously as a filmmaker in spite of his less-than-stellar previous works – is just how good and real all the supporting, bit and background players are. When a filmmaker is as careful with background action as he is with that in the foreground and works to make it all seamless – creating a WHOLE WORLD, so to speak – he is no mere hack of the competent variety (as most of his previous work might suggest).

Weitz is totally on the ball in creating a world we want to believe in, and while he delivers the goods in terms of visual details and performance, he is saddled with middle-of-the-road writing (blessed with only infrequent blips of inspiration and far too many lazy touches). He didn't write the screenplay, but as a director he must still take responsibility for it. I am, however, now excited to see when he makes a picture where the writing is up to his directorial prowess – when the script stops yanking us back, as it does in A Better Life, to the very real problem inherent in too many movies these days – the overwhelming, unearned notion that everything is fine.

It's not.

A Better Life is currently in theatrical release via E-One Entertainment.

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