Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.
Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.
Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.
One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.
Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.
Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.
Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.
Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.
Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).