Director Chris Weitz’s new drama, “A Better Life,” should be a much better movie than it is, but emotions get in the way. It’s a quintessential L.A. story of a hard-pressed illegal immigrant family — in this case a father and son — living with the constant fear of deportation. Rather than being compelling, though, the film is weighted down by clichés. A pity, since the issues could hardly be more timely.
Weitz, working from a screenplay by Eric Eason (“Manito”), wears his heart on his sleeve in every scene. That tack has sometimes worked in the filmmaker’s favor, as it did in 2002’s surprisingly affecting “About a Boy,” directed with his brother Paul. But where “About a Boy” invited us along for the emotional journey between a fatherless boy and Hugh Grant’s rootless, rich layabout, in “A Better Life,” we’re left on the outside looking in.
The film is set in the present day and told in a near even mix of Spanish and English that wavers between feeling natural and merely biculturally politically correct. The story is a familiar one: Carlos (Demián Bichir) crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally years ago and has spent a lifetime working as an off-the-books gardener. His son Luis (José Julián) was born here, and in addition to U.S. citizenship, he has all the sullenness of a typical American teenager. Mom bailed years ago, so it’s just the two of them left to deal with adolescence, a pervasive gang culture and Carlos’ fear of discovery.
The action turns on the ways in which ordinary problems become extraordinary for those here illegally, upending the families of the undocumented; in the worst cases, deportation tearing them apart. For Carlos, disaster comes just as he buys into the American dream — a truck, a client list and a complement of gardening tools that will enable him to run his own business. Within a day, the truck is gone and Carlos and Luis will spend the rest of the movie dealing with the massive blowback of that one event.
Much of the movie rides on the back of Bichir, who co-starred in Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”; he has countless excellent performances as well in Mexico, where he is part of a legendary acting family. He’s got a soulful look that brings Carlos to life here and there, but it’s a struggle. And you can sense it.
The film’s pacing — with the camera lingering a few seconds too long in virtually every scene — is maddening, leaching away tension and real emotion at every turn. Even the look of the film is flat. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe’s (“Secrets of the Heart”) lens keeps L.A.'s ghettos, barrios and its beach-front mansions at a distance, strung together like disparate elements rather than a web of intersecting social classes in a complex world. In its place, the filmmakers serve up a vacuous space filled with stereotypes and cliches — overly earnest and in your face. If only they’d scratched beneath the surface, they might have created a better “Life.”