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Two Reviews of ‘Miss Bala’

Gina Rodriguez is as good as she’s allowed to be as an L.A. makeup artist tied up in a Mexican drug war, but the rest of the movie feels inert

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

What follows are two reviews of Miss Bala, a new movie starring Gina Rodriguez that was released last Friday. If you’re very busy today, I might encourage you to jump past the first one and just read the second one. I say so because the second one is a straight-line review of the movie and only about 230 or so words. The first one, however, is not only considerably longer (more than four times longer, in fact), but also it’s probably not even really a review of the movie (even though it definitely is). Thank you.

The First Review

Back during my fifth or sixth year of teaching, I had a kid named Charlie in one of my classes. (That’s not what his real name was, but it’s the one I’m going to use here.) Charlie was the very best. He was not that great of a student (he was almost always failing), and his personality was unquestionably grating (he was almost always a couple sentences away from getting beat up by someone in the cafeteria or gym locker room), and I’m almost certain that he stole money from me early on in our relationship. But none of that mattered. I liked him a great, great deal. And the reason I liked him a great, great deal was because he looked very much like a younger cousin of mine. That’s really and literally the only reason I liked him. I’d look at him, be reminded of my cousin, and forget all of the reasons that I should’ve not liked him. I mean, it was uncanny how much Charlie looked like this one particular cousin. He had the same eyes, the same nose, the same walk, the same everything. If I squinted, it was impossible to tell the difference between the two. He looked so much like him, in fact, that there were a handful of days when I was certain that I was living inside some kind of Looper situation.

And because I like that younger cousin so much in real life, that meant I liked Charlie so much in school life. And since I liked Charlie so much in school life, I absolutely gave him preferential treatment. If he wanted to turn in an assignment late, that was fine by me. If he felt like coming to my classroom during lunch and eat in there with me and the co-teacher I shared the room with, that was fine by me. We had a special rule in class called The Charlie Rule that stated that he could, at any moment, for any reason, any number of times a period, get up and walk out of class and go to the restroom without asking for permission. If he failed a worksheet or a lab or a test, I’d arbitrarily announce that we were grading on a curve that day. Charlie was my guy. I rooted for him and I was not quiet about the fact that I was rooting for him.

One day—this was during those dead weeks between Thanksgiving break and Christmas break—Charlie showed up to class with a poster he’d drawn for me. He said he’d worked on it at home for a couple days and he wanted me to have it to hang up in my classroom. And listen, I don’t mind telling you that I was touched by the sentiment. It meant a lot to me that he did that. I knew that it meant, among other things, he was going to try to harder in my class than he might have otherwise, and that made me happy. But I also don’t mind telling you that that poster was goddamn terrible. It was so bad. It looked like he drew it when he was very drunk, is what it looked like. It looked like he was mad at me when he drew it, is what it looked like. It looked like it was a prank, is what it looked like. But when he came to class with it that Monday and handed it to me, his smile full of slightly crooked teeth and his posture full of pride, I promise to you I sure did celebrate it like it he’d walked in carrying a true and authentic masterpiece.

I told him it was the best art that I’d ever seen in my life, and that maybe he should consider selling it “for a million dollars in New York City.” I laminated it and hung it up near the entry door so that everyone would see it when they walked in. I told all the students that they could earn an extra five points on whatever assignment they wanted in exchange for saying something nice about it at the front of the class. If anyone said anything bad about it (which happened often, because, again, it was awful), I would argue otherwise with the same kind of impassioned fury that the Rock argued with during his court case in Walking Tall. For a small period of time, I even instituted a pre-class ritual in which all the students in the class had to stand up and stare at it in silence for 15 seconds after attendance before we could get started with our actual work. It was this whole thing. “I’ll brainwash the kids into thinking it’s good,” I told my wife at dinner one night when she asked why I was doing it. “I don’t know but I’m gonna keep doing it,” I told my wife immediately afterward when she asked me if I thought that spending time on something like that was a good idea.

And I want to be clear here: This wasn’t one of those “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” situations either. I knew—the same as everyone else knew—that what we were looking at was dreck. I knew that, by any real measurement, the poster was a disaster. The proportions were bad and the shading was bad and the general composition was bad. But it just didn’t matter, and I just did not care. Charlie reminded me of someone that I knew, and that was enough to make me lie about the whole thing.

Gina Rodriguez has a new movie out. It’s called Miss Bala. It’s not very good.

The Second Review

In Miss Bala, Gina Rodriguez plays Gloria Fuentes, a Los Angeles–based makeup artist who accidents her way into the middle of a war in Mexico between a drug cartel, the DEA, the CIA, and the Mexican police. And as much as that sounds like a good premise for a movie, and as much redline tension as there is in the 2011 Spanish-language version of Miss Bala, this new version just isn’t that, and doesn’t feel like that. It’s bad. And not bad in a fun way. It’s bad in a boring way.

And to be sure, Rodriguez is as good as she’s allowed to be in the movie—there’s a part in it where she has to decide between letting an innocent woman get murdered in front of her or expose herself as a mole for the DEA and Rodriguez packs an undeniable amount of emotion into that moment. And there’s an interesting story line that begins to peek its way out in which Gloria grapples with the idea of not being American enough to live in America and also not being Mexican enough to live in Mexico, but it doesn’t quite deliver. (More trenchant, unfortunately for her and also somewhat ironically, are the accusations of expressing anti-black sentiments she’s faced in real life these past few months.) But that’s about where the goodness ends. The rest of the movie feels inert and is inert.