Paul Rodriguez, the comic actor and stand-up artist, is a funny man on TV and the stage. In "A Million to Juan," he's trying to be touching . Very loosely based on Mark Twain's story "The Million Pound Bank-Note," it's not particularly funny and it's touching in the get-out-your-handkerchiefs mode.
Rodriguez, who also makes his directorial debut, doesn't yet know how to make a movie move. Clunkiness has its charms but not for this long.
Juan (Rodriguez) is an undocumented Mexican immigrant living with his 10-year-old son (Jonathan Hernandez) and his cousins (Tony Plana, Bert Rosario) in a slummy East L.A. apartment. He's the king of part-time jobs, but his dream of owning his own restaurant, which would net him his green card, seems illusory until a mysterious man in a stretch limo hands him a check for a million dollars. The catch is, the check must be returned in 30 days.
Juan and his cousins quickly horde goodies on credit: Versace duds, a Mercedes. It's unclear how they are managing to raid Beverly Hills without dropping a dime--even millionaires aren't royalty anymore on Rodeo Drive--but we accept the conceit. If we didn't, the movie would collapse.
Rodriguez and his writers, Francisca Matos and Robert Grasmere, want to make a social statement, but it's not clear what it is. Are we supposed to share the glee of Juan and his cousins as they turn the tables on the Beverly Hills snoots by beating them at their own game? Although the film winds up being a money-can't-buy-you-happiness job, the happiness is all too evident on the screen. Rodriguez celebrates the values he knocks.
Big-name actors like Edward James Olmos, Ruben Blades and Cheech Marin show up for cameos that seem more like favors owed or returned. As the INS caseworker who falls in love with Juan, Polly Draper has a lush sweetness that makes her scenes with Rodriguez ingratiatingly cozy. They make a nice couple.
* MPAA rating: PG, for very mild language. Times guidelines: It includes a young person's death and a few racist slurs. 'A Million to Juan'
Paul Rodriguez: Juan
Tony Plana: Jorge
Bert Rosario: Bert
Victor Rivers: Hector Delgado
A Samuel Goldwyn Co. and Crystal Sky Communications presentation in association with Prism Pictures. Director Paul Rodriguez. Producers Steve Paul and Barry Collier. Executive producers Barbara Javitz, Gary Binkow, Sherman Baldwin. Screenplay by Francisca Matos and Robert Grasmere, based on a story by Mark Twain. Cinematographer Bruce Johnson. Editor Michael Ripps, Jack Tucker. Music Steven J. Johnson and Jeffrey D. Johnson. Production design Mary Patvaldnieks. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.