“Mariachi Gringo” is less about one young man and his journey than a sheer celebration of Mexican culture – the food, the language, and especially the music.
Shawn Ashmore, best known for playing Iceman in the “X-Men” flicks, stars as Edward, an emotionally stunted man-child who’s still looking for his place in life, even as his 30th birthday approaches. He’s still living at home with his parents (Kate Burton and Tom Wopat) and barely employed at the Go Go Postal office shop. He takes medication and there’s a suggestion of institutionalization in his past.
Then he bumps into an old mariachi singer at the local Mexican restaurant – probably the only one in Greenville, Kansas. Alberto (Fernando Becerril) has a strong voice and a good heart, and he takes Edward under his wing to teach him some songs.
When Alberto falls ill and the job at Go Go Postal dries up, Edward decides to head down to Guadalajara to try to make it as a mariachi singer. Never mind that he barely speaks any Spanish (he has learned the lyrics phonetically) and knows only a handful of the 3,000 songs a mariachi is expected to play from memory.
He gets a break when he meets Lilia (a vibrant Martha Higareda), a vivacious young woman who speaks English and helps run the restaurant across the street with her mother. The mother (Adriana Barraza) is suspicious of the odd American, but Lilia takes him under his wing and helps Edward realize his dream of playing in a Mariachi band.
Ashmore has a high, pure voice and a graceful, languid presence, and acquits himself remarkably well with the songs. Lila Downs also has a notable turn as Sophia, a female singer with a breathtakingly deep timbre who assists Edward in his career.
Director Tom Gustafson and screenwriter Cory James Krueckeberg paint a lovely portrait of the Mexican way of life. But I’m not sure if they set out with a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish from a storytelling perspective. Once Edward starts to see some success as a gringo mariachi, the story thread comes unraveled.
There’s a suggestion of romance with Lilia, but her previous romances were with women and she’s not sure if she really wants to switch teams. The last half-hour or so of the film wanders, and the ending is problematic.
Still, if you’re into gorgeous scenes of Mexican costumes and dancing, mouth-watering close-ups of food being prepared and served, and lots and lots of terrific mariachi music, this movie is for you.