Rated: PG-13 for some violence and language. Reviewed by: Jim Release date: April 18, 2014 Released by: Pantelion Films
Michael Pena, recently in the successful (though Academy Award snubbed) movie based on the Abscam events over a generation ago American Hustle gets a more substantial role as the titular civil-rights crusader. One that may have thematic significance with more resonant true-life cinematic recreations like Milk and the recent Matthew McConaughey starrer as a gaunt homophobic electrician, The Dallas Buyers Club.
Unfortunately, Cesar Chavez doesn't allow the solid actor a chance to really muscle his way into a well-intended slice-of-life biopic which strode for migrant farm workers. Director Diego Luna (who was a part of the aforementioned moving, adroit Gus Van Sant/Sean Penn collaboration) and his scenarists don't really provide the foundation and true emotional stakes for a tale which probably had more edges and less of a traditional trajectory that Pena obviously latches onto with noticeable subtle undaunted grace.
Yet, there is a blankness around a character who moves his family to California wine country to take on the establishment. An attractive cast includes America Ferrera (whose fans would like a small-screen Ugly Betty reunion) as Chavez's devoted wife Helen and Rosario Dawson as ever-present colleague Dolores, as well John Malkovich as the key antagonist cultivator for the union. Luna, it seems, is still establishing himself as a helmer and despite a few colorful flourishes he can't make the whole and particularly Pena a poignant and inspirational figure instead of heroically muddled.