Spare Parts (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some language and violence
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: George Lopez, Carlos PenaVega, Marisa Tomei, Jose Julian, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Del Rio, J.S. Villareal, Esai Morales, Alexa PenaVega
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenplay: Elissa Matsueda (based on a Wired Magazine article, "La Vida Robot", by Joshua Davis)
Review published January 21, 2015
The premise: Four Hispanic community high schoolers from Phoenix, Arizona decide to start a "robot club" in an effort to compete in an underwater robot obstacle-course competition, sponsored by NASA, competing against some of the best engineering colleges in the country. They have very little time to prepare, and even less monetary resources, so they slap together a working DIY prototype made out of pool noodles, PVC pipe, and even some tampons.
Underdog stories are always a crowd-pleaser, though many of them succumb to following traditional formulas to try to deliver maximum amount of tension and emotional impact. Formulas can still work when you're invested enough in the characters and believe in their plights, but, more often than not, we're pretty sure how things will go once we hear of the premise, and then we can see all too well the plot manipulations that connect us from point A to point Z.
Sean McNamara (Soul Surfer, Bratz) directs with an eye that suggests a made-for-TV kind of vibe, and one can easily envision that this kind of movie will play in perpetuity on such channels as ABC Family and other such basic cable hosts, ready-made to enthrall all of the moms and pops out there who just want to have a pleasant experience with tried-and-true clichés. Not surprisingly, McNamara cut his teeth in the industry making fare like this for the Disney Channel, which this is just a few fights with bullies and an armed grocery store heist away from being fit for.
The screenplay by first-timer Elissa Matsueda tries to deliver a bit of backstory about each of the young men to show how much adversity they will have to overcome, from broken homes, to potentially being deported as undocumented. One is shown as unable to join the military without these documents, while another is probably going to get deported for sure if he is ever caught doing what he does best -- breaking into cars and scamming the owners with on-the-spot fix-it work. There's a hackneyed romance that develops between characters played by real-life couple Carlos ("Big Time Rush") and Alexa PenaVega (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) that adds nothing to the proceedings save to add one more name to tout clout. A burgeoning romance seems to bubble under the surface between fellow teachers played by George Lopez (School Dance, Rio 2) and Marisa Tomei (Love is Strange), but even the makers of this film seem to know there's zero chemistry there, so it goes unexplored.
The cast of actors is appealing, and give the film their all, but there's not much that can be done about cardboard characterizations stuffed into a timeworn plot. Lopez feels about right for the material, playing a composite character (the real team had two coaches instead of one), and the drama doesn't really ask much out of him he can't handle. Tomei and Jamie Lee Curtis (Veronica Mars), who plays the school's spirited principal, are almost always fun to watch, despite their characters seeming to have walked on the set right out of a sitcom rather than a struggling high school. The quartet of boys is more Disney than street, and are a bit long in the tooth to seem like high school kids, but I supposed that's par for the course in Hollywood. At least they have adequate chemistry together, as well as with Lopez.
Some viewers will likely give this kind of low-rent, well-meaning flick a pass just based on likeability, and it's fine for all-ages fare (provided you don't know Spanish; the English subtitles don't quite translate the Mexican cuss words correctly to preserve its rating). The formula does work here and there, but not enough to overcome its excessive length and too many uninteresting side stories that have little to do with the competition or story at large.
As the pre-end credits wrap comes on and we see the real people the film portrays, it makes me wish I'd seen Underwater Dreams, the documentary about the real-life participants this story is based on, rather than the phony baloney fairy-tale interpretation we get here. That it's about fledgling engineers is not a surprise, as this flick truly as by-the-numbers as it gets - a vehicle made from the spare parts of countless other films you've seen before.
©2015 Vince Leo