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A Better Life (Chris Weitz, 2011)


Chris Weitz’s A Better Life is one of those modest movies that is so outwardly well-intentioned that one cannot help but doubt its intentions. An unnecessary updating of De Sica’s classic Bicycle Thieves, the film offers a trite message and simple moral scheme under the guise of universalism. Centered on the relationship between Carlos (Demián Bichir), an illegal immigrant gardener in Los Angeles, and his son, Luis (José Julián), the film aims to tug at the audience’s heartstrings from the start. Carlos has been conceived as a stoic father who works all day for the sake of his troubled son, only coming home to pass out on his small home’s dingy couch. His ungrateful son gets into fights at school and generally ignores his father. The two are forced to reappraise one another after a contrived theft of Carlos’ truck forces them to work together.


These hoary scenes of reconciliation, which take up the majority of the film, fail to work for two reasons. Carlos’ forthrightness and emotional candor in the second half of the film seems like a betrayal of what we’ve learned about this modest man in the first. Secondly, Julián’s performance as Luis is wholly inadequate for the task at hand. While Weitz presumably thought he was gaining some degree of realism by casting a non-professional actor, Julián is not convincing in the least. As A Better Life plods along, it makes obvious points about the distance between parents and children while wringing its hands endlessly about the impossible legal and economic situation of illegal immigrants. One keeps waiting the film to reveal something surprising, but it never does, coming off as a made-for-television drama.


For most of its runtime, A Better Life engages with the real world only by having its characters stare plaintively out of the windows of a driving vehicle. Awkwardly, though, the film grows actively political during a few moments in its third act as Carlos is held for deportation. Before long, though, Weitz turns on the waterworks again and undoes what little tragic energy he has created with an ill-advised coda.  A Better Life seems to be an attempt by the hack director Weitz to make a “personal” film that puts him in touch with his Mexican American roots. What is shocking, then, is how generic the end result feels. A warmed-over attempt to shoehorn Neorealist ideas into a glossy, contemporary mold, A Better Life simply made me yearn for a better movie.



Jeremy Heilman