When Cheech Marin wrote "Born in East L.A.," it was a bittersweet parody of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," an often-misrepresented song about alienation and broken promises. Marin's version was a twist on "illegal alienation," centering around news reports of a Chicano illegally deported to Mexico because he didn't have the right papers. For millions of American-born Hispanics and for countless others aspiring to citizenship and opportunity, the song and the situation had resonance beyond the humor. Marin's song inspired a popular video (more a parody of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." video), and that in turn has inspired a movie version written and directed by and starring Marin.
Unfortunately, things have gotten out of hand.
It's not that a story about today's immigration crisis isn't inherently dramatic -- remember "The Border"? It's that in "Born in East L.A.," Marin plays it mostly for cheap laughs and only an occasional touch of pathos. In other words, he's taken the easy way out. And the script is so sketchy, the scenes so disconnected and the ideas so vacuous (even for Marin) that "Born in East L.A." is in desperate need of a center it never finds in its 75 unfocused minutes. The film is a series of skits, blackouts and punchlines, but finished it's not.
Which is too bad, because Marin, half of the now-defunct comedy duo Cheech and Chong, has a genial Everyman quality that was often obscured in the duo's witless "drug daze" films. Here he plays Rudy Robles, a third-generation Mexican American swept up in an immigration raid. Never mind that Rudy speaks no Spanish and cusses in idiomatic English; he's left his wallet home and without identification he has no identity. Deported to Tijuana, he tells his tale to the immigration service, but its computer turns up only one Rudy Robles, an older alien with a record of arrests "in every California city with a saint in its name."
So Rudy becomes an irony: He's an American citizen trying to sneak across the border to home. It's an interesting premise, but Marin doesn't know how to develop it. So he brings in a half dozen angles. There's the sleazy Anglo club owner (Daniel Stern) who hires Rudy to pull in the tourists and stakes him via nickels and dimes. There's the heart-of-gold Salvadoran refugee (Kamala Lopez) who dreams of her own crossing. There're the half dozen South American and Asian "Hill Boys" who dutifully study at Rudy's "Waass Sappening" school, a method of cultural integration and attitudinal adjustment that will allow them to blend into L.A.'s Chicano community.
There's also a prison diversion (with a sinister Peter Lorre-like turn by Tony Plana) and other minor plot twists. One funny sidebar setup revolves around Rudy's Mexican cousin (a waste of comedian Paul Rodriguez), who has made a converse crossing into America and is waiting at Rudy's apartment under the stern gaze of a Jesus portrait that keeps sending him strange audio messages.
The action, however, is clearly south of the border. Rudy's attempts to get across that border are at first like games: In one he diagrams a football play with a half dozen other aspirants and tries the old end-around. (Funny. You'd have thought he'd opt for the Statue of Liberty play.) Later, things get more desperate when he buys a spot on a truck that is supposed to smuggle him across the border. In the end, Rudy's route home is ludicrous, but then so is much in a film so ambiguous about ethnic stereotypes it might just as well have been made by insensitive Anglos.
Admittedly, there are some good lines, but they are few and far between, and except for a few quick vistas, the scenes in Tijuana could just as easily have been shot on a set. The filming is often flat, as is much of the acting. In fact, the short musical video of "Born in East L.A." is far superior to the film.
Born in East L.A., at area theaters, is rated R. It contains profanity.