[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
I wanted to love a movie that, in the first five minutes, had a teenage girl march up to a schoolmate and get right in his face all, "Give my boyfriend his money back or I'm-a have you killed." Ruthie (Chelsea Rendon) has gangster uncles, and she doesn't give a shit.
But A Better Life doesn't do anything with Ruthie after that, really, and what it does do is disappointing and timid. The center of the story is Ruthie's boyfriend, Luis (José Julián) — or rather his father, Carlos (Damián Bichir), and his struggles to keep Luis in school and away from bad influences like Ruthie's Uncle Celo (the charismatically tattooed, and underused, Richard Cabral). Carlos can't do much, though, because he works all the time and Luis's mother is not around. But when Carlos borrows a whack of money from his sister to buy his friend's landscaping truck (and by extension the business), he lets himself begin to dream bigger for himself and Luis, about more money, a nicer apartment, a safer school. Maybe even his citizenship.
This is a mistake, and the audience realizes it the moment the camera shows us Carlos dropping the truck's keys onto his jacket and preparing to climb a very tall tree. Carlos's new partner would like a truck of his own, so he steals it, in a sequence that's genuinely tough to watch — your stomach drops along with Carlos's as he gives vain chase, and then the film takes an intriguing turn as father and son team up in an almost buddy-movie sort of way to track the truck down. Forced to engage with one another for the first time in a while, Carlos and Luis knock on doors, chase leads, and try to solve the mystery, and that section of the movie is fun. The pacing is brisk, Julián kicks his acting up a notch, and because everyone in their world has to operate in the same cash-only, no-cops shadows they do, the story has an anything-goes feeling.
But like Carlos's big dreams, that doesn't last. If director Chris Weitz had stuck with that movie, the buddy movie? If the script had had Carlos and Luis keep finding the truck, then losing it again, finding it, losing it, climbing fences, occasionally yelling at each other, and then Carlos got by with it in the end? That is a snappy story about the sixteen different knife edges the hardworking immigrant has to balance on in this country without cutting himself to shit. Instead, we get After School Special nonsense like Carlos physically cringing when he witnesses a fistfight in a parking lot, or dismayed reaction shots from Bichir and Julián when Carlos and Luis find themselves in an apartment where fellow Mexicans bunk eight to a room. Thanks for the PSA, but a live-action Wikipedia stub about immigration policy should have something new to say.
And it should do it with professional actors. Bichir isn't actually great; he's fine, but he makes a handful of lazy or weird choices, and the fact that he's head and shoulders above the rest of the cast reeeeeally isn't saying much. Woody Harrelson should have had Bichir's spot instead, for Rampart, but…you know. The Oscars. This might just be one of those "Crash — no, we toooootally get it!" things with the Academy that you just have to let roll off.
The way that the movie is not good, and then almost good, and then not good again some more, is maddening. Non-completists may drive through.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.