Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Million to Juan

A Million to Juan (1994) is a rags-to-riches Chicano comedy which overtly illustrates the disparity between rich, white Americans and broke, struggling Chicanos. Ten-year-old Alejandro Lopez (Jonathan Hernandez) introduces a collection of characters, starting with his father Juan (Paul Rodriguez), who has an affinity for being penniless even though he is the master of odd jobs. Alejandro gets babysat regularly by the neighbours, Mrs. Gonzales and her daughter Patricia, and he lives with his father (his mother died 3 years earlier) and two uncles: Jorge and Alvaro, who cry during their beloved Spanish soap-operas. Their place of residence is a run-down apartment in East L.A. owned by Mr. Jenkins, a crabby landlord who lets only Mexican immigrants live in the building so that he can report them to immigration services if they complain. One afternoon, Mrs. Gonzalez performs a small spiritual ritual on Juan, complete with candles and air freshener, which is specifically designed to ask the saints to bestow wealth upon Juan. That night, Juan discusses job opportunities with his brothers and he realizes that he will have to work for Hector Delgado by selling oranges on street corners; a job which he swore he’d never do.

After Juan’s trampy girlfriend Anita starts to date Hector and Juan doesn’t think his life can get any worse, a white limo pulls up to the street corner where he’s selling oranges. The back window cracks open a few inches and an anonymous hand presents Juan with an envelope. In the envelope is a cheque for one million dollars addressed to Juan Lopez and a note that states the terms of the ‘experiment’: If Juan returns the cheque in 30 days to the same limo, he will receive a gift. Everyone is dubious of the cheque’s authenticity, but Olivia (Polly Draper), Juan’s kind and beautiful immigration officer, suggests that Juan verify the cheque at the bank, just to be sure; especially when Juan has been rejected for a green card and may be deported to Mexico within the week. The cheque turns out to be authentic and Juan is immediately treated with respect wherever goes. He and his brothers head out on a shopping spree in Beverly Hills, buy a Mercedes, and Juan even gets invited to the bank manager’s cocktail party. He gets credit at stores which had refused him earlier and restaurants bring him drinks which he hasn’t ordered; all he has to do is flash the cheque. While out with his son at a Mexican restaurant, Juan bumps into Olivia, who can’t believe that the cheque was real. They make a dinner date in order to discuss plans of Juan opening a small business; while Olivia’s boyfriend Jeff grumpily leaves the restaurant due to his great dislike of everything Mexican.

Although Juan is now able to live a rich lifestyle, he doesn’t ever forget his responsibilities or lose his kind demeanor. At the dinner date, Olivia advises Juan to open a restaurant on account of his excellent cooking skills. They both become more interested in one another as the night progresses and then, seeing as Olivia has already been invited to the bank manager’s cocktail party through Jeff, they decide to meet one another there to act as moral support against the snobbery of the other guests. Juan arrives at the party only to be immediately labeled as a valet by those who don’t know him (due to his Hispanic descent), or complimented profusely by those who know about his new-found wealth. He soon escapes to the balcony where a man in a white suit approaches him and asks him questions about his employment. Juan lies at first, but then, as if forced by the man’s gaze, he admits that although he almost completely broke (apart from the cheque), he still yearns to start his own business. The bank manager suddenly appears and when Juan asks for a loan, the man in the white suit vouches for Juan as a man of integrity and vision, allowing Juan to obtain the loan. Later on that night, Jeff storms out of the party when Olivia and Juan begin to ‘fraternize with the help’, allowing Juan and Olivia to leave the party and go celebrate Juan’s loan on the rooftop of his apartment building, where they begin to slow dance and finally progress to kissing.

The next day, Juan is ready to propose to Olivia, but before he is able to, she announces that they should keep their relationship strictly professional. To add to the grim situation, Patricia Gonzalez dies of pneumonia due to a broken heater and faulty window in the apartment. Mrs. Gonzalez takes all her religious knick-knacks down as she loses her faith and Mr. Jenkins attempts to evict her from the apartment. When Juan tries to stop the eviction and set the record straight: that the defective building had caused Patricia’s death; Jenkins frames Juan to make it look like he was going to attack him with a knife. Juan is taken to jail, but Olivia is able to get him out; only to tell him that everything he had gotten on credit was repossessed and that she has quit her job and is moving to Seattle with Jeff. Juan is dumbfounded and exclaims that he loves her now more than Jeff will ever be able to love her. Olivia knows that Juan is right, but is caught between the two men as Juan goes back to selling oranges. Suddenly, the white limo appears again. Juan passes the cheque back through the window and a hand, along with the voice of the man in the white suit, gives Juan an address to go to in order to receive his gift. Juan becomes angry at how this man is playing with his life and throws away the address as the limo departs. Just then Olivia drives up and proclaims her love for him. Alejandro, in the back seat, then notices a billboard bizarrely graffitied with a note to Juan containing the address on the piece of paper he had thrown away. The three of them drive to the location, a run-down and abandoned building, and find a certificate naming Juan as the proprietor. Juan immediately sets to work and everyone in his life chips-in to help restore the building into The Angel Café. Juan and Olivia marry and move into a beautiful mansion, living with all their loved ones and preparing for the arrival of a new family member, Esperanza. The tale of Juan’s amazing good luck ends with the man in the white suit gazing through a window to check-up on the family before slowly walking away and disappearing into a flash of white light.

There is constant banter about the Chicano’s living situation in L.A., particularly in comparison to Mexico. Jorge comments that a job is difficult to find in the US; especially when so many other immigrants can exploit their struggles and beg for money. He then continues to say that he should have never left beautiful Mexico. Even though his brother, Alvaro, mentions that the increased cost of living in America is well-worth not having to carry cement bags for a wage of $3 an hour in Mexico; Jorge still insists that Mexico is heaven on Earth compared to the hell of the US. Caucasians are constantly depicted as ignorant, such as the woman who hands a pop can to Juan, instead of money, saying, “You people recycle these, don’t you?” As she drives away, Juan crossly crushes the can into the ground with the heel of his boot. Many Mexicans have learnt how to work the system with sob stories and lies; but Juan, who is the most sincere and reliable Chicano in the film, cannot find it in himself to stoop to that level, even if it means that him and Alejandro might be sent back to Mexico (even though Juan has lived in the US for almost his entire life). Yet, however dire this situation may be for Chicanos, A Million to Juan still sheds hope on their social condition and encourages honesty and responsibility among Chicanos in order to attain their dreams while in America. While many, such as Jorge, may wish to return to Mexico, the film stresses that happiness can still be found in a foreign land.

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