The odds of “A Million to Juan” breaking out of its inherent niche-market appeal can be summed up in its title. This gentle rags-to-riches tale set in the Los Angeles barrio is a good-natured parable that, unfortunately, doesn’t pack much commercial punch. Its positive intentions aren’t enough to cross over into the mainstream.
Loosely based on the Mark Twain story “The Million Pound Bank Note” (filmed more traditionally in 1954), it centers on Juan Lopez (Paul Rodriguez), a decent , uneducated guy trying to eke out a living and raise his young son. The task is made more difficult by a bureaucratic snafu that threatens to send the U.S.-born , but undocumented, Lopez packing to Mexico.
At this point fate steps into the picture. On the job selling oranges at a quiet intersection, he’s beckoned to a limousine and handed an envelope. When Juan rips it open, inside is a check for $ 1 million.
He’s told that it is a loan. He has it for a month and, if used properly, he will receive a reward.
Juan doubts its authenticity; his immigration caseworker and buddies prod him to check it out. When a BevHills banker almost goes into cardiac arrest, there can be little doubt of its genuineness.
The basic premise has weathered the years quite well. But the underlying sweetness of the Francisca Matos/Robert Grasmere screenplay is out of step with contemporary mores. Its major problem is that the central character never succumbs to any of the deadly sins his sudden good fortune would ordinarily offer. Juan remains the soul of decency while almost everyone around him turns into gargoyles of lust, desire and greed.
“A Million to Juan” is no more than a trifle and a paean to hope, faith and good deeds. None of these noble sentiments are enhanced by the style of presentation or the wit of the text.
Rodriguez also makes his directorial debut, demonstrating little more than passing knowledge of the grammar of the craft.
He at least comes across as a pleasant hero, and his casting of supporting parts is quite shrewd. Among the large cast are keen turns by Ruben Blades and Edward James Olmos and strong secondary work from Tony Plana and Polly Draper as an unexpected romantic interest.
While Rodriguez adheres to the movie dictum of happy endings, his mix of message/mirth is too soft and mushy to reach a contemporary crowd.