Here's the setup: A mysterious, impenetrable fog surrounds California. And poof! They're gone. The Mexicans, legal and illegal. Plus all the other Latinos. Disappeared in a moment, their lowriders empty and still hopping on hydraulics without drivers, like some kind of ethnocentric Rapture, like a neutron bomba. The helpless gringos awaken to find no nannies, no gardeners, no janitors, no valets and no fresh salad. Crops rot on the ground and tomatoes must be bought by the bag from shadowy dealers. All that, and the Dodgers lose most of their infield and the seventh-largest economy on Earth grinds to a standstill because there is no one left to build, cook, or clean anything (a state senator's wife, missing her vanished domestic, stands in the kitchen, afraid of cooking utensils).

The movie is called "A Day Without a Mexican." It opened here three weeks ago and is making its way north and east, with shows in Northern California and Texas, and coming soon to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. The film is scheduled to arrive on the East Coast, including Washington, around August.

The $1.5 million "mockumentary" was written by the husband-and-wife team of actress Yareli Arizmendi, who stars in the film, and Sergio Arau, who debuts as a director. They're both from Mexico and now live in Los Angeles.

"We've made a lot of noise, eh?" Arizmendi says by phone from San Francisco, where the film was to open this weekend and where a rented airplane was buzzing the Bay Area with warnings of disappearing Mexicans.

The movie is part comedy, part drama, part documentary. It is equal parts funny, insightful and dumb. The critics are not exactly loving it. LA Weekly reviewer Ella Taylor wrote that "a terrific premise is mangled to a pulp." Critic Gary Dowell of the Dallas Morning News was more upbeat: "an ambitious, hit-and-miss social satire that doesn't score as many direct hits as it should. But it lands enough punches to get its point across."

But newspaper editorialists in the Southwest are taking note of the film as "a teachable moment" to debate America's seemingly schizophrenic immigration policies. Conservative talk radio jocks have been hot on the topic, too -- arguing that the movie is overly broad, meaning that they (the radio hosts) don't want to empty the nation of all Hispanics, just the illegal border crossers. We can keep the Argentine literature professors and Cheech Marin.

Some Latinos have questioned the film's stereotyping of Hispanics as a workforce dominated by field hands and day laborers (though the movie seeks to inoculate itself against charges of soft racism by pointing to the fact that 20 percent of all teachers in California are Latino, that Hispanics have Nobel Prizes, etc., etc.).

The "controversy" is being stoked in that Hollywood way. The filmmakers, and their advertising team, made a righteous stand for First Amendment freedoms after one of their billboards in Hollywood ("ON MAY 14TH THERE WILL BE NO MEXICANS IN CALIFORNIA") was yanked by Viacom Outdoor after a few hours of display because of a complaint from a passerby who found it offensive.

"In today's politically correct society, nerves are very sensitive," says Glenn Garland, creative director of Eleven-Eleven Advertising in Santa Monica, which is handling the ad campaign. Garland swears he and his comrades were not the ones who "complained" and had the billboard pulled. Hmmm.

On the other hand, Garland is behind the "guerrilla marketing" for the film, which includes a mock Web site that resembles a TV news channel page and the papering of target cities with thousands of posters featuring a sombrero-clad hombre and the words: "Missing: Jose."

"It's teasing, it's controversial, and if I could say so myself," Garland says, "wickedly clever. It's a pro-Latino comedy. That's why it works."

The box office numbers (about $2 million so far) have been good for a little film released during a summer of blockbusters. The movie is the first to be produced and distributed by Televisa Cine, a subsidiary of Mexico's big Grupo Televisa, which makes wildly popular Spanish-language soap operas.

Mike Doban, Televisa Cine's general sales manager, says the company is planning to make and release a half-dozen movies a year in the United States, most of them English-language, as is "A Day Without a Mexican."

"There's really no one else regularly doing Latino-themed films in the movie marketplace," says Doban, who points out that Hispanicentric films have been hit-and-miss, like the floppy "Chasing Papi." "The field is wide open."

Arizmendi says she and her husband got the idea for the movie in 1994, when California's governor at the time, Pete Wilson, blamed the state's woes on illegal immigration and pushed Proposition 187, which sought to deny social services to undocumented workers. "So you can say the patron saint of the film is Saint Pete," says Arizmendi, who hopes the movie will help people see the important contributions of Latinos.

At the film's conclusion, one group is certainly overjoyed to see the Mexicans returning across the fence line. The Border Patrol. Get it?

Director Sergio Arau and his wife, Yareli Arizmendi, wrote "A Day Without a Mexican," in which Arizmendi also stars, top. The mock documentary, which has created a buzz in California, is expected in Washington in August.