Lead Actors Drive Flawed 'Better Life'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The best reason to consider seeing "A Better Life" is the lead performance of Demián Bichir, the Mexican actor best known here for his bluff portrayal of Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che." He's simply superb here playing an undocumented Mexican worker living in Los Angeles, doing landscaping for Beverly Hills swells, and quietly struggling to earn the titular goal for the sake not so much for himself as for his adolescent son, a quiet-leaning-toward-surly kid who's at risk of being swept into gang thuggery. Bichir is a superb physical actor, which suits the role of Carlos, who's a quiet man in a couple of senses. He's not inordinately articulate or chatty, for one, and for another, he's kind of stealthy, having quite a bit invested in flying under the radar, as it were, because he knows what's likely to happen to him if he's noticed. Bichir imbues the character with a lot of dignity and strength, and it's magnetic.
The second-best reason to consider seeing "A Better Life" is the performance by José Julián as Luis, Carlos' son. He complements Bichir's quiet strength with a combination of typical teen arrogance and touching vulnerability, and the best parts of the movie are when these two characters, and two actors, push against each other while trying to arrive at a common understanding. Their excellent work, however, is too often compromised by the often insistent triteness of the story line and direction by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy," "Golden Compass") that aims for the sincere while often settling for the automatically slick.
An early scene in the film underscores its general problem. Because his living is precarious and his main concern is for his son, Carlos chooses to sleep on the living room couch of their one-bedroom house, leaving the bedroom itself for Luis. By way of showing Carlos as fastidious and responsible, the film includes a scene of him unmaking the linens on the couch one morning. But it shows this in a series of dissolves rather than by settling down the camera and showing the action. Now, I'm not one to tell a director his business, nor do I wish to imply that I think this film should have featured a bunch of master shots of its lead character performing actual tasks in real time. But still, this choice seemed to give something away, a sense that it wants to look interested in what its lead character actually does, but not that interested.
Such shortcomings hardly surprise: For the past 30 years at least, Hollywood's been on pretty wobbly ground with regard to portraying the working classes, illegal alien or not. But that's not the half of it. As it happens, the story, written some years ago by Roger L. Simon and lately crafted into a script by Eric Eason, blatantly lifts a trope from the greatest working-father-and-his-son film of all time, Vittorio De Sica's classic "The Bicycle Thief." While I suppose there's some credit due for having the good taste to lift from the best, this pilfered plot point will no doubt distract some in the audience familiar with the original. Even those not familiar with the original might detect a certain secondhand quality seeping through the proceedings. Said quality tends to dull the sharp work done by the actors, which is a shame. This is a very well-intentioned film, and it's commendable that those intentions don't lead it to the place that the truism says it usually will. But a little more sensibility applied to its sensitivity could have brought it to a much better place.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.