Mariachi Gringo is a charming tale of a regular ol’ American guy in search of The Mexican Dream. Yes, you read that right: The Mexican Dream. Edward (Shawn Ashmore) is a young man fast approaching 30 who is surrounded by nothing but corn and a mundane Kansas life–complete with a nagging mom, distant father, jerk brother, and an anxiety disorder. Seeking an out to this tired life, he decides to pursue his dream of becoming a musician before it’s too late. Edward’s move to Mexico is in part motivated by a respect and appreciation for Mexican culture that he gains from Alberto (Fernando Becerril), a former mariachi singer. Edward is welcomed into Alberto’s home and world. The contrast between Edward’s listless, dull, American middle class home life and Alberto’s large, warm and fun Mexican family is highly pronounced–and serves to push Edward south of the border in search of a better life.
At a time when so many voices in the media are quick to accuse Mexicans of doing irreparable damage to the American way of life and culture, it was refreshing to view a film in which we are provoked to think about the ways in which traditional American life is lacking in comparison to Mexican values. As if this subtext championing Mexican culture wasn’t enough to ingratiate me to this flick, the musical numbers were quite impressive. Fans of Lila Downs will not be disappointed by her performances in the film. Actually, her rendition of Paloma Negra alone is worth the price of your movie ticket. This film is at its strongest when showcasing Mexican music–and it’s not just traditional mariachi music that is portrayed, but other traditional and contemporary/traditional fusions, as well. In this sense, Mariachi Gringo is part musical and part drama, with a few sprinkles of comedy on top–especially when some of Edward’s not-so-idyllic Kansas family and neighbors are lampooned in moments of comic relief.
While I thought I would tire of the film after I realized it was a “follow your dreams” kind of plot, I didn’t. The characters had sufficient depth to keep me engaged from beginning to end. Edward meets a young, beautiful woman, Lilia (Martha Higareda), in Mexico. This love interest angle is thankfully non-Hollywood; their relationship is complicated by her history, culture and other secrets. She, too, is stuck between reality and following her dream. Lilia and Edward share a passion that binds them, but the passion is not necessarily for each other. They have a real connection as fellow stymied souls. But watching this relationship develop cuts into precious music time, which I would have loved to have seen more of. That is my only real qualm with the film: some slower parts could have been livened with a music injection.
Much of the movie takes places in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The musical artists’ costumes, architecture and cityscapes featured were well selected, solidly painting Mexico as the lush and colorful paradise our protagonist hoped to find. The music and scenery make for an all around enjoyable movie experience. The only eye-roll inducing moments came during the shameless–and I would say, uninspired–Garnier-Fructis product placement scenes. I know people gotta pay the bills, but, damn. There have to be more creative ways to work in subpar hair products that don’t involve shots of characters grooming themselves, running Garnier-Fructis gel through their hair.
Bottom line: This is an entertaining film that lovers of Mexican art and music should especially enjoy. Go expecting some great music and walk out satisfied.