Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle La Cucaracha

By Marc Savlov

APRIL 26, 1999: 

D: Jack Perez; with Eric Roberts, Joaquim de Almeida, Tara Crespo, Victor Rivers, James McManus. (R, 100 min.)

A tragicomedy of near-Shakespearean proportions, Jack Perez reimagines Old Mexico and the gringo expat's place in it as a manic fever dream, replete with double crosses, hideous twists of fate, and el diablo, the cockroach. In this 1998 Austin Heart of Film Festival winner, Eric Roberts, sinks his teeth into the script (by James McManus) like a starving hound savaging a spare rib, and turns the story's many clichés into revelations of crestfallen grandeur and battered hope. As the alcoholic, thoroughly broken American Walter Pool, Roberts clings to his dreams of becoming a great novelist while precariously residing on the outskirts of a tiny Mexican village -- in a tin and cardboard shack no less. Dividing his time between penning missives to his lost love back in the states, pining for a local señorita, and propping up a battered table at the local cantina, Pool is a shell-shocked waste of a good man, existing on borrowed time, unable to make the payments on his talents, and just generally hanging onto sanity by the abraded skin of his too-white teeth. When he is approached by a gregarious, florid American by the name of Louis Grace (McManus), Pool jumps at the opportunity presented by the meeting. Grace, representing the local mob boss, Jose Garras (de Almeida), offers Pool $100,000 to kill the man who allegedly raped and killed the mobster's 16-year-old son. After a humiliating meeting with Garras, Pool reluctantly takes the offered pistola and sets off to do the deed. Nothing much goes as planned, however, and in the end it's Pool who ends up buried in a shallow roadside grave. Clawing himself out, he awakes in a cucaracha-infested hospital to find that his wounds have left him paralyzed from the waist down. No matter; the double cross has finally given this three-time loser a satisfyingly epic raison d'etre, and he hurriedly sets off to even the score. La Cucaracha is a minor gem that has languished on the shelf for some time; it's one of those films no one seems able to get a handle on marketing-wise, too brazenly downbeat for its own good, but with a cool, giddily humorous edge to it. So many twists and turns are woven into McManus' brilliant screenplay that you're never sure what's going to slap you upside the head next, then when something does, it causes your ears to ring for minutes afterward. Finally, though, it's a desperate, blacker than black comedy about the search for life in a dead man, a parable of vengeance, and a love story that could make Federico Garcia Lorca choke on mouthfuls of sick giggles. Perez directs in bold, compelling strokes, drenching the dusty Mexican locales in the mad droning of cicadas, filling the frame with eerily beautiful sun-spattered vistas, and making Roberts look even more insane than we've suspected all along. De Almeida (late of Desperado) and McManus are equally full of vida loca, though the film finally belongs to Roberts' tortured Pool. Comic like a car crash, La Cucaracha takes one man's mala noche and spins it out over a month of black Sundays.
3.5 stars

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