Not since Gidget went Hawaiian have youthful hijinks in a mildly exotic setting seemed so old-fogeyish as they do in “Baja.” This tame, tepid road-trip comedy is notably short on laughs — save for a few unintentional ones when it tries to channel serious drama. It’s hard to know just what audience writer-director Tony Vidal was aiming for, beyond perhaps teens of a couple generations ago. Nonetheless, the self-distributed film is opening on 20-odd (mostly AMC) screens this Friday.
Southern California suburbanite Bryan (former “Lizzie McGuire” cast regular Jake Thomas) is too nice for his own good — he gets pushed around too easily by both his parents (Cynthia Stevenson, Kurt Fuller) and his exploitative sporting goods store boss (Randy Nazarian). Party-hearty bestie Todd (Chris Brochu) convinces him to rebel for once, chucking his job and not telling the folks that he’ll be taking a few peers along for the ride when he drives their expensive RV to a vacation rendezvous point during Christmas break at the far Mexican end of the Baja peninsula.
The other passengers are the boys’ erstwhile high school classmates Jessica (Michelle DeShon) and Lisa (Arienne Mandi). While nervous-nelly Bryan just prays to get the vehicle safely back to his unsuspecting parents, everyone else has a different agenda: Without informing the others, Todd invites trouble by smuggling several boxes of cellphones for potentially dangerous big-shot Jorge (Andres London). Film student Jess needs to use the trip to shoot an assigned project that will wow her hostile professor. Lisa wants to track down her estranged father, whose years’-long stream of letters, she has just learned, have been hidden from her by her embittered, hypochondriacal mother. Much is made of Lisa’s resemblance to a Selena-type Latina pop star who died in a plane crash.
Awfully leisurely and padded for a lightweight film that’s not particularly packed with incident, “Baja” leans on lame, touristic cultural stereotypes and an Eisenhower-era prudishness that would work better if the film simply owned up to it. In theory, it’s admirable to make a de facto teen comedy today without the usual raunch and cussin’. But Vidal’s sensibility feels more incongruous than organic. Jessica is written and played as a 20-year-old version of a prissy, nagging spinster, though it’s unclear whether the film realizes she’s a pill. When the boys go to a bordello (where they acquire a fifth lead in Zoe Corraface’s high-minded prostitute Carmen) and duly pair off, Bryan is too squeaky-clean and Todd gets too drunk for physical intimacy to occur.
Deducting sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll from the genre equation puts extra pressure on scripted and directorial ingenuity in a movie that boasts neither. Blandly competent in assembly, “Baja” has only pedestrian comic ideas, and even those aren’t executed well. It’s typical that one running gag has characters chiding Jorge’s flunky Burnout (Jason Spisak doing a sort of Skid Row Jeff Spicoli) for not wearing sunscreen — a bit that would have only worked if the makeup crew had actually bothered to make him look sunburnt. Dialogue does not shrink from cliches like “Take this job and shove it,” “We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore,” and the kind of Spanish vocabulary that you could learn from Taco Bell ads. The only big laughs arrive toward the end, when a series of ridiculous straight-faced revelations and redemptions prove funny for all the wrong reasons.
The principal actors have an unmistakable sheen of professional training and ability. But they aren’t given much to work with, and the harder they try (notably in Thomas’ strenuous mugging), the more obvious that lack of support becomes. “Baja” is too innocuous to be offensive. Still, it gets close with such elements as wide-eyed peasants literally worshipping at the altar of a dead pop star, and a wand-waving desert shaman (Mark Margolis) who speaks in vague, hokey fortune-cookie wisdoms.
More boggling still are a few instances of special effects so tacky that in almost any other context, one would assume they were meant as deliberate camp. Here, however, that seems highly unlikely. The closing credits feature Northern Californian Latino music act Carne Cruda’s hit “I Love You More Than Tacos,” which has become something of a snarky “answer” song to Trump-era Mexiphobia — but after nearly two hours of the cultural tone-deafness of “Baja,” it plays like a frat-house anthem.