A director of comedies seeks to make a well-intentioned but artless social conscious drama. That’s the plot of Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels. Alas, it’s also too often a reality. The need to say something Important, but not the need to say it well, has struck Rob Reiner (Ghosts of Mississippi), Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia) and now Chris Weitz, best known as one of the American Pie guys. (Though he’s also helmed humorless franchise product, like The Golden Compass.) Weitz has cashed in his successes to craft a small, earnest and perfectly honorable Movie That Matters on the plight of illegal immigrants. Predictably, it’s “real” only in the manner perceived by Hollywood players; as far as verisimilitude goes, it has more in common with Twilight: New Moon, the last film Weitz made.
And yet Weitz is at heart an incorrigible humanist, and his warm-heartedness sporadically fleshes out a gruesome screenplay (by Eric Eason) whose plot, painted in broadest strokes, goes like this: Carlos (Demían Bichir) is a longtime, Los Angeles illegal who, pining for the titular dream, purchases a second-hand landscaping truck. Naturally, it’s immediately stolen by a fellow alien. Needless to say, Carlos cannot turn to the authorities, but he’s soon joined on his quest by Luis (José Julian), his indignant teen son. Luis, who has been flirting with joining an aggressively tattooed gang, finds his father’s endless, sad-eyed nobility tiresome—perhaps you may, too—and together the pair discover the world isn’t as simple as either has imagined it.
For all its bluntness, A Better Life smartly avoids being mere tract by turning to a genre plot—or, rather, by baldly ripping off Bicycle Thieves. It’s a neutered imitation, lacking Thieves’ brave descent into darkness, but at least there’s more than message-mongering, even if what it offers in its place is engaging but often patently ridiculous: Behold as our heroes, late in, hatch the dumbest break-in in movie history. (Naturally it works.) A Better Life hasn’t been designed exclusively to convert the heartless, who won’t show up anyway, but not being gorily didactic is all it has going for it.