Comfortable and Furious

A Day Without a Mexican (2004)

Pat Buchanan’s wet dream, you ask? The Republican Party’s number one campaign pledge? Hardly. This provocative phrase belongs to a film from director Sergio Arau, and while I was stunned to find it opening this week at a mainstream cineplex, I doubt it will last more than a few days as the theater was all but empty. As for the film itself, the premise (as usual) is far superior to the execution: suddenly, and without warning, all of California’s Latinos disappear without explanation. In the blink of an eye, the economy goes into a tailspin, as the state’s fruits and vegetables go unpicked, the restaurants are cleared of servers, cooks, and dishwashers, and the grunt work — taking care of bratty kids, sweeping the streets, and scrubbing the toilets — goes undone.

And without the billions being spent by Latinos (yes, even illegals), businesses close their doors, bankruptcies are filed, and unemployment skyrockets. Even the border patrol agents are desperate, as they are forced to comb the want ads in the face of having nothing to do with their time. To compound the problem, a thick fog surrounds the state that prevents anyone from leaving, as well as any form of communication from taking place with the rest of the world. Californians are left to deal with the absence of a group of people they have usually taken for granted.

Even before seeing this film, I liked the idea and the motivation behind it. Too many self-righteously blast the “invasion” of the United States by undocumented workers, sending fear to the suburbs by evoking images of drug use, crime, and forked-tongues. No one would (or should) ever argue that California isn’t facing a crisis in terms of its illegal population (consider the strain on the state budget, for example), but the solution is far from the simplistic rants being uttered by the very people who would lose their precious gardeners if it ever came to pass. I have no doubt that many Californians want the state to erect a massive wall to keep out aliens; and I’m just as certain that they want the Army to serve as the last line of defense. But A Day Without a Mexican demonstrates what would really happen if these people got their wish. The film succeeds when it takes a humorous approach to the issue, as it is rich with satirical possibilities (as when whites riot in the streets over a fruit shortage), but too often the film adopts an attitude of superiority, using ham-fisted “lessons” that undermine the power of the argument. This is most clearly demonstrated by the character of a university professor, who yells at the camera with platitudes and “shame-shame” histrionics. Such things might be more suitable for the classroom, not a film, where the first obligation is always to entertain.

The film is partially told as a pseudo-documentary, and when it remains so it is at its best. We survey the damage, the empty streets, the ghost-like freeways, and the Depression-like conditions. But whenever the film insists on a narrative thread — such as the story of a Latino reporter who wonders why she didn’t disappear, only to find out that she’s really Armenian — it plays it safe and isn’t overly interesting. There are many characters that are fun — the racist state senator who takes over the job of Governor when most of the government disappears; the humorless asshole who organizes BBQs to celebrate the return of America to its white “owners”; and the frazzled newscaster who eventually reveals her lust for the Latino weatherman. Some of these side stories go nowhere, or at least run out of gas, but enough remains to land effective jabs. If there is a weakness here, it is that the characters are too obvious as “symbols,” and therefore lack real substance. A major criticism of the film, according to several reviews I read on the internet, was its over-length. Here was a 15-20 minute idea played out over of the course of a feature length motion picture. I can agree with that sentiment, although I don’t think it made the film a stinker. Repetition does in fact set in, but I wasn’t bored or frustrated.

Still, the film’s conclusion was a bit weak, as it used the opportunity to hammer home more obvious social commentary. The Latinos return (and the explanation is some nonsense involving “alternate realities” and other such sci-fi gibberish), and it appears that everyone has learned their lesson. There’s no doubt that people should learn their lesson regarding illegal labor and what it means to our national economy, but the film forgot that subtlety and wit win more converts that blunt objects to the head. But there was a placard in the film that made me think about something that in retrospect seems obvious, but has for some reason eluded me. The sign read, “America is a continent, stupid.” And indeed it is. When people talk about “Americanism” or what is “un-American,” they forget that there is also a South America and a Central America, which means that it would be more accurate for a U.S. citizen to describe themselves as “United Statesian.” And yes, too many of us use the general term “Mexican” to describe residents of a dozen diverse nations. It’s similar to the belief that “African-American” is accurate when one is speaking of Haitians, Brazilians, Cubans, or Jamaicans. It’s a form of racism that continues to elude our detection.

But as I find that political issues are first on my mind when discussing this film, I also realize that the more cinematic elements are largely irrelevant. There’s no need to discuss cinematography, editing style, or art direction, as everything takes place on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. And the acting and direction make no difference, as no particular voices stand out. This is a work of propaganda; effective in some respects, yes, but not at all likely to have an impact. Even if this film secured a respectable audience, it isn’t able to transcend its one-note message. It’s fun, and necessary, and original in that it has the balls to say out loud what most of us are thinking, but eschews sophistication and depth at the exact moments when such things might have put it over the top as a modern classic of satire. As presented, it’s just enough to start the discussion.