The Big One? Wildfires? None of these comes close to bringing California to its knees like the prospect of every Latino in the state vanishing into thin air. Darkly amusing idea delivers an early salvo that fades. Pic will anger some as it amuses others; those seen to vanish in the film will appear in respectable numbers during platform rollout.

The Big One? Wildfires? Power company scandals? None of these comes close to bringing California to its knees like the prospect of every Latino in the state vanishing into thin air, as posited in “A Day Without a Mexican.” Darkly amusing idea delivers an early salvo that fades as the film swings across a range of styles and tones director Sergio Arau gamely tries to corral. Even at its half-realized level, pic will anger some as it amuses others; those seen to vanish in the film will appear in respectable numbers during a platform rollout in California and the Southwest.

Commissioned by Chicago’s Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Arau (son of Mexican helmer Alfonso) and co-writer/thesp Yareli Arizmendi conceived of the idea as a short. In tripling the original length, the film’s delightfully pointed mockumentary aspects are combined with a pallid chain of sketched-in characters reacting to events. That noise you hear in the third act are calls for the ghost of Preston Sturges to come in for a rewrite.

In an amusing dramatization, Mary Jo (Maureen Flannigan) despairingly recounts how she woke one morning to find husband Roberto (Eduardo Palomo) missing, along with one of her children. Time then shifts back to present to introduce a roster of characters: right-wing State Sen. Abercrombie (John Getz); anti-immigrant activist and farmer’s son George McClaire (Bru Muller); TV reporter Lila Rodriguez (Arizmendi), urged by her producer to “Latinize” her on-air delivery.

Point-of-view is anywhere and everywhere. Early on, Arau has anarchic fun by playing with perceptions of what’s being viewed — either directly by his camera or through a media-filtered lens. He tosses in a repeated view of a glass of water under a leaky faucet; as the expected Latino plumber never arrives, the water overflows.

Suddenly, Latinos start going AWOL across the Golden State, which is mysteriously being surrounded by a thick fog even as communications and travel in and out of the state are cut off. Activist George’s far more liberal dad, Louis (Muse Watson), blames it on the INS, while George readies to go to a party celebrating the exodus.

The script applies a balanced view to the Anglos left behind and forced to fend for themselves without the everyday labor they’ve come to expect: While the farmers George and Louis are split along ideological lines, Mary Jo is sympathetically seen as a woman whose bearings have been yanked out from under her. Abercrombie is the easiest and least effective target: a pure GOP reactionary slated to take over the governorship.

But with this gallery of types, Arau, Arizmendi and co-writer Sergio Guerrero don’t develop the satire past its most obvious points, and reporter Lila more and moremoves to the pic’s center. Seeming to vanish and re-appear faster than a guest star on “The X-Files,” she ends up becoming the subject of mysterious government experiments. She has a secret, though, which points up the pic’s stated message that ethnicity matters less than how one is raised.

Ensemble of thesps generally avoids the wink-wink style of performances in Christopher Guest’s mock-docs, and this is most effective in the likable Flannigan and Watson. Arizmendi has a dicier assignment stuck halfway between drama and camp, and can’t find quite the right note.

Movie’s real heart seems to lie in toying with visual media, with Arau and lenser Alan Caudillo clearly enjoying manipulating digital vid.

Pic reps an unusual, cross-border combo of Mexican funding and crew, with Yank casting and locales.

A Day Without A Mexican

Mexico - U.S.

Production

A Televisa Cine release (in U.S.) of a Videocine Prods., AltaVista Films, Cinepolis Prods., Plural presentation, with support from Fidecine. Produced by Eckehardt Von Damm, Isaac Artenstein. Executive producers, Federico Gonzalez Compean, Luis Fernandez. Line producer, Jude Pauline Artenstein. Directed by Sergio Arau. Screenplay, Yareli Arizmendi, Arau, Sergio Guerrero, based on the short film "A Day Without a Mexican: A Mockumentary," written by Arizmendi, Arau.

Crew

Camera (Fotokem color, DV-to-35mm), Alan Caudillo; editor, Daniel A. Fort; music, Juan J. Colomer; production designer, Anthony Rivero Stabley; art director, Charles Brownell; costume designer, Carlos Brown; sound (Dolby Digital), Daniel Beres; sound designer, Matias Lanzi; visual effects supervisor, Jay Mark Johnson; associate producers, Arizmendi, Arau, Eye on the Ball Films; second unit director, Guerrero; second unit camera, Edurado Flores Torres; casting, Penny Ludford. Reviewed at Egyptian Theater, Los Angeles, May 12, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN. (English, Spanish dialogue)

With

Lila Rodriguez - Yareli Arizmendi State Sen. Abercrombie - John Getz Mary Jo Quintana - Maureen Flannigan Louis McClaire - Muse Watson Aunt Gigi - Caroline Aaron Ellen Abercrombie - Melinda Allen Roberto Quintana - Eduardo Palomo George McClaire - Bru Muller

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