"Pulling Strings" takes a bit of a hit by being the third Latin single-dad comedy to roll into American theaters in a month. And though it is funnier and out-charms "Tio Papi," it lacks the whimsy, magical realism and kid-friendly sentiment of the sleeper hit "Instructions Not Included."
But this tale of a mariachi singer denied a visa, who then tries to trick and charm the American embassy staffer who turned him down, is a winning vehicle for singer / actor Jaime Camil.
Alejandro (Camil) is raising his 9-year-old daughter alone, and fears what the Catholic school nuns are telling him is true -- that he's botching the job. She needs to go spend time with her grandparents. In Arizona.
Having no property, permanent address or passport, he gets little more than the no-eye-contact dismissal from U.S. Embassy functionary Rachel ( Laura Ramsey of "No One Lives" and "Kill the Irishman"). Rachel's mind is on her next assignment, a transfer to the London embassy.
But as coincidence would have it, her colleagues hire Alex's superb mariachi band for her going-away party. Lots of shots of Jose Cuervo later, he winds up taking her home, in only the most gallant sense. It's just that he hides her top-secret laptop computer as leverage for a days-long "search" and "get to know you" mission that he figures will win her over and get his daughter the visa.
What works here is the mariachi milieu of Mexico City. Alex cooks up an elaborate scheme to drag Rachel from one "contact" to another, tracking down the missing laptop. There's Cosme the taxi owner, Margarito, the "underworld" sage, Gus, Alejandro's "manager." As they trek back and forth through the city, mariachis play "La Bamba" and the diplomatic "gypsy" finally samples the cuisine and the life of the city she's never bothered to get to know.
The mariachi scenes come close to taking off -- a delightful romantic serenade here, a traditional birthday party there. More could have been done with this whole big band in big hats and costumes, piling into a single ancient Chevy Suburban.
Alejandro and his wise-cracking bandmate ( Omar Chaparro) convince relatives to mob the band to convince Rachel that they're a big deal -- "Like eh, Justin Bieber-Mexican!"
Hollywood veterans Tom Arnold (playing Rachel's boss) and Stockard Channing (her mother) have little funny to say or do.
Third-act complications in the plot -- obstacles to the computer recovery -- are both tedious and entirely too obvious.
And the lovely Ramsey, who can manage a decent drunk scene, doesn't bring much heat or set off comic or romantic sparks with Camil, who is most at home in his offhanded scenes with Chaparro.
But "Pulling Strings" scores sentimental romantic points about the difference between "meeting lots of people" and actually getting to know them, and the simple idea that whatever shortcomings a musician single-father has, a child belongs with her dad.
And the bilingual, handsome, musically and comically gifted Camil shows us charisma that could have Hollywood calling -- if you manage to get studio executives to show up for a movie about mariachis.
Cast: Jaime Camil, Laura Ramsey, Omar Chaparro, Tom Arnold, Stockard Channing.
Directed by Pedro Pablo Ibarra, written by Issa Lopez, Georgina Riedel, Gabriel Ripstein and Oscar Orlando Torres. A Pantelion / Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:49
MPAA rating: PG, for language and brief smoking
Photo/Video credit: Pantelion Films