Born in East L.A. (Cheech Marin, 1987)
Dipping my toe back into the films of Richard ‘Cheech’ Marin and Tommy ‘Chong’ found me chronologically at a crossroads in the pot-smokin’ comedy duos career, where their shared efforts were getting increasingly tattered around the edges (to say the least) while at the same time those familiar tensions we all read about inevitably cropping up between famous celebrity duos in conjunction with their success (Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, Martin and Lewis, Shaq and Kobe, you name them – they never seem to escape it) had begun to flare.
The annual ‘Cheech and Chong’ release was over by this point, finished off by flagging audience interest, with their declining act in those films having moved from highly amusing stoner humor, from two highly likeable performers, within a sociologically well-attenuated Chicano environment (most effectively realized in their first, and by far best, film, Up in Smoke in 1979), into mostly random skits around not particularly thoughtful, or remotely culturally insightful impersonations (with the lesson that should have been learned being — stick to the Mexican American stuff – it might get iffy now and then as far as some dubious stereotyping, but at least it’s a world you know) — and lots of broad gay, fart and dick jokes, with the duo now left to mostly doing short bits in other movies, with other filmmakers trading on their recognition – leading to, though I have to say, one particularly memorable cameo in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 joyously paranoid, urban-life-as-spinning-nightmare black comedy, After Hours, in which their shared appearances as the van-driving burglars, robbing from the rich of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who have no idea the entire film’s amped-up narrative is unwittingly spinning about their actions, that had them entirely back on my good side (not that they were ever really on my bad side – they’re too likeable for that!)… so the two comedians, disgruntled as they were with each other, decided to branch off into separate ventures… and I figured, what the hell, let me follow… I mean it can’t get any worse than that last attempt at a meta-mockumentary they did, Get Out of my Room, right?
Taking as his jumping off point the Born in East L.A. song that Cheech openly cribbed from the Springsteen classic (a powerful – and way misunderstood, certainly by the jingoistic Reagan-era Republicans – anti-war anthem and American critique – one that’s more relevant than ever, with that last Prez – the Orange one — having galvanized a whole swath of these working class Americans Springsteen has been singing so eloquently about for years, ones who feel economically left behind by a corporate/capitalist system controlled by uber-wealthy elites — funneled into a Chicano-centric mixer by an artist in Cheech with a much more laid-back, though also socially observed approach), with Jan-Michael Vincent reprising his villain role from the associated music video as a sun-glass wearing fascistic border cop, Cheech’s movie follows the adventure of Rudy (with the writer/director also playing the lead character), a US-born citizen of Mexican descent, who ironically barely speaks any Spanish (as apparently Cheech doesn’t), swept up helplessly in an immigration raid and deported to Mexico, left there without any ID or money (with his wallet left on a shelf in his kitchen, a moment captured in the typically obvious, artless manner of Cheech’s filmmaker), desperately trying to figure out — with the help of Jimmy (Daniel Stern), a likeable huckster American hiding out for mysterious reasons while running all sorts of get-rich schemes out of the grungy strip bar he’s managed to take over, and Dolores (the positively adorable, it not exactly thesp-skilled Kamala Lopez), a hard working immigrant from Central American trying to save up enough money to slip into America — how to get back across the border to his home.
Kamala Lopez as Dolores
While Cheech’s story admirably focuses attention on relevant immigration issues that up to that point had barely been broached in Hollywood (ones that everyone talks about now, as they’ve remained equally unresolved, though – as with most issues of the last four years – somehow the majority of people seem to believe it was just another problem started within the last four years by the ex-Prez-we-all-love-to-hate when, in, in fact, candidates like Hillary Clinton are on official record, years before the Orange Boogeyman was anywhere around the political landscape, pushing for the horribly misguided notion of building a wall, openly selling the notion on the back of fear of a faceless, brown-skinned criminal rabble), it’s not surprising that the film was a decent box office success for Cheech (as well as gained popularity at various international festivals, winning awards for instance in Havana, Cuba, where Cheech apparently received a rousing standing ovation), as it at least addresses the overriding frustrations at a dehumanizing system set-up against so many immigrants trying to enter the US (illegally and otherwise)… alas, I guess I only wish it was a more gripping, and better, film overall.
As if mirroring the demeanor of Cheech himself, “East L.A.” — a film with such gripping potential at its core – is too laid back and self-effacing to have the proper dramatic tension. On top of it, considering it’s obviously intended firstly as a comedy, the comedy lacks the teeth that could have helped it (alas, that’s been a recurring problem for the entire C&C act for awhile). With the approach of the film veering between Cheech underplaying his role (attempting to be more ‘real’, I guess) and then drawn into moments of broad, even slapstick, comedy (such as the kinda funny, but mostly forced montage of him showing some OTM immigrants – i.e., ‘Other Than Mexican’ immigrants – how to ‘act’ Chicano if they manage to get away with illegally migrating and hiding in the US), there’s an inconsistent tone that makes it… well… not much more than passably watchable, and mildly entertaining.
It was interesting to learn from the audio commentary on the bluray that Cheech originally had tried to get filmmaker Robert Altman on board to direct (and, even more, that C&C had also tried to get Altman once before, for their first, and greatest effort, Up in Smoke). While not an absolute assurance that “East L.A.” would have been better – as the occasionally-great, now-late Altman was certainly capable of some pretty blatant misfires post- his brilliant run in the 70’s – it certainly would have boded well for the very type of improvisational nature with which Cheech talks about having approached the film (and, alas, he wasn’t always up for finding the magic in the moments – instead, again, creating mostly passable, if unremarkable moments – where likely Altman would have found much more). Too bad it didn’t happen (well, for “East L.A.” anyway… Up in Smoke is just fine as it is, thank you, very much, having been directed by the duo’s agent at the time, Lou Adler, who has mostly been seen in the last few decades seated next to Jack Nicholson courtside rooting on the Lakers). I will say Cheech’s instincts were correct, however, having thought of Altman for those two particular films.
“East L.A.” ends up standing on the warm likeability of the performers, and the main threesome – Harris, Stern and Marin – are up for it (while poor comedian Paul Rodriguez, popular at the time, is left with the entirely thankless role of Rudy’s cousin Javier, just arrived from Mexico, unable to speak English, waiting at his cousin’s LA home for Rudy to finally arrive, forced to spend his screen time ogling, in pure stereotype fashion, at the pretty women on television, or weeping in dumb terror at the Jesus portrait in the living room who he believes is speaking directly to him, apparently too mentally challenged to figure out it’s just the telephone answering machine in the alcove behind the painting – ugh… I have to say, it’s silly and lazy ‘character’ moments like these that give me pause now and then to why I’m continuing along this whole Cheech and Chong retro thing).
Shady but good-hearted Jimmy (Daniel Stern)
There is an amusing, eye-opening conclusion to the film, though, a scene of joyous wish-fulfilment that speaks to a more innocent time (because there is no way this scene would play out like this today without causing all sorts of outright controversy), in which Cheech’s frustrated Rudy, having had enough of being able to return home, in a final act of heroism, convinces an entire wall of hundreds of desperate Mexicans to storm down the hill, overtake the border guards and disappear into LA… all to the rousing pro-immigration lyrics of Neil Diamond’s triumphant “America” (gotta wonder if Neil has since taken that one off the Vegas play-list these days when performing before all those Red State-loving, chunky white Americans on vacation in the glitzy desert town).
The bluray also contains the television cut of the film, which drops in about 20 more minutes to the film’s ending, coming right after that rousing hundreds-of-Mexicans-storming-the-border scene (it’s fun just saying that) that finished up the theatrical release, in which Rudy and his now-love Dolores are suddenly kidnapped in LA by some enterprising criminal Mexicans looking to make some money off the vulnerable illegals (not realizing that Rudy is actually legal), that eventually sees our two romantics not only getting away, but with Rudy managing a comeuppance against Jan-Michael Vincent’s villainous nasty border cop from earlier in the film (by quickly getting married – with the ceremony performed by a suspiciously swishy Mexican priest on a holiday float, making Dolores immediately legal – not that that’s really how it works obviously… but it’s the movies, so whatever…).
Like the unpretentious Cheech himself, Born in East L.A. may not be the profoundest of experiences, but it’s also not without its charms…. and at just a little over 80 minutes (at least the theatrical cut anyway), it doesn’t overstay its welcome.