Spare Parts (United States, 2015)

January 16, 2015
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Spare Parts Poster

Spare Parts tries too hard to be a based-on-a-true-story, feel-good, crowd-pleasing, triumph-of-the-underdogs movie. Somewhere along the line, perhaps by never deviating a millimeter from the expected trajectory of the genre, it crosses the line from inspirational to cloying. Formulas don't have to be boring but when a movie is so relentlessly predictable that every aspect of the plot can be guessed before the opening credits, what's the point of telling the tale? Okay, so it's bland enough for moms and dads to feel comfortable about taking their kids and it's a rare mainstream film that focuses in a positive way on Latino characters, but Spare Parts has little else going for it.

This is a fusion of a sports movie and Goodbye Mr. Chips. A PhD with an engineering degree, Fredi Cameron (George Lopez), applies as a substitute teacher at an undistinguished New Mexico high school. The principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) hires him despite concerns she has about his seeming inability to hold down a job. As the advisor of the "engineering club," Fredi becomes involved in an effort by two students, Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega) and Cristian Arcega (David Del Rio), to enter a robot building contest. After traversing the road from skepticism to engagement, Fredi helps the team grow from two to four, adding Lorenzo (Jose Julian) and Hector (J.R. Villarreal), and contributes as much time and money as his "advisor" role allows. Along the way, he makes "friends" with another teacher, Gwen (Marisa Tomei), who invites him over for "coding lessons." Several individual dramas later (one per team member), the high school robot builders head for California for the big contest that will see them going toe-to-toe with MIT. Guess who wins…

It's easy to be cynical about a movie like this which, despite its factual basis, is more product than story. The pandering is obvious - the movie has been made with the theory that the large, underserved Latino population will flock to see it because it stars a mostly Latino cast. It's not especially well made - there are some embarrassing medium shots that show George Lopez smirking at inopportune moments (difficult to say whether the blame should go to the director, the cinematographer, the editor, or all three). Director Sean McNamara, who proudly takes an auteur credit, doesn't have a resume to inspire confidence. Some of his recent productions include a couple of direct-to-video Baby Genuiuses sequels and the forgettable Soul Surfer. He shows little ability to generate tension when it comes to presenting the competition (but maybe he doesn't care about such things).

George Lopez, best known as a comedian, encounters difficulties balancing sincerity with humor. His limitations as an actor are evident in a dramatic scene he plays opposite veteran Esai Morales (playing the pugnacious father of one of the boys). Lopez is more at home in lighter moments - flirting with Marisa Tomei, trading barbs with Jamie Lee Curtis, or going for an unexpected swim. To be fair, he is effective in a scene where he reveals the past tragedy that has turned him into a vagabond.

Although the movie doesn't strongly advance a political agenda, it's impossible to ignore that all four of the boys are undocumented. This only impacts Oscar's story - he is pursued without much vigor by government agents - but what's interesting is the matter-of-fact way in which his situation (and that of his teammates) is treated by the screenplay. It's viewed as commonplace; for those looking for a "ground zero" perspective of the "immigration issue" in border states, Spare Parts is a good place to start.

Some will probably dislike Spare Parts for political reasons. Although it seeks to be a family film, its pro-immigration subtext will rub some viewers the wrong way. To me, the film isn't good or bad enough to generate much in the way of ire. It takes no chances, following the safest possible route in an attempt to become a modest box office success. Movies like this define mediocrity. They aren't painful but they are better suited to television than theaters. Spare Parts is a good example of what people mean when they refer to a "January movie" - something forgettable that's more likely to get lost in the blizzard of other such offerings than to develop a passionate following.

Spare Parts (United States, 2015)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2015-01-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1