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A Day Without a Mexican

(2004) ** R
97 min. Altavista Films. Director: Sergio Arau. Cast: Yareli Arizmendi, Caroline Aaron, Maureen Flannigan, John Getz, Muse Watson.

Though I haven't seen Sergio Arau's half-hour long 1998 short subject "A Day Without a Mexican," I expect it delivers more wicked snap than the watered down, 97-minute version now in theatres. Largely unfunny and hammily performed, A Day Without a Mexican is set strictly in California but, in spirit, goes all over the map.

Arau, along with wife and co-writer Yareli Arizmendi, tells an ambitious "what if?" tale of gringo Californians waking up one morning to discover that the Latinos are rapidly disappearing. You never miss the water until the well runs dry, the saying goes, and soon politicians are scrambling for damage control as California's number-one industry (agriculture) goes south due to the lack of once "unwelcome" illegals. Waiters and maidservants spirit away, as well, putting the emphasis on the social oppression of Latinos; Arau and Arizmendi seem to limit the references to socially flourishing Latinos to artists: a rock-star married to a gringa and celebrity Latinos glimpsed as the faces on a deck of playing cards.

Though promoted as a mock-documentary, A Day Without a Mexican isn't one, narratively speaking (constant newscasts nothwithstanding). Nor does it stick to its broad comedic style, instead leaping awkwardly into serious drama. Despite its fantasy overtone, the use of "California Dreaming" tells us all we're meant to know about the central mystery of the plot—including a fog which binds in California and renders its isolation from the rest of the world literal.

In an expanse of mostly lame jokes and half-baked-indie drama, scattered gags connect, like one which finds an Israeli actor regularly mistaken as Mexican and a terrific border punchline which caps the film. Only a couple of the actors vaguely emerge from the pack, like veteran Caroline Aaron (Crimes and Misdemeanors), who's the sole familiar face. Arau tries every visual trick he can muster, like newscast effects and a video game animation, but the film still looks like an overlit indie. Worse, it's ham-handed and dully obvious, despite its admirable notions of inclusiveness. Audiences will find this a long day, indeed.

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