MPI // 2007 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 7th, 2009
Hope is the greatest gift of all.
"$12.50 an hour? You know what that means? Yankee Stadium on opening day, baby."
Frank Diaz (John Leguizamo, Assault on Precinct 13) is an illiterate, washed-up boxer whose time in the ring has come to an end. His last fight went very poorly, and everyone is convinced that Frank is more or less done for as an athlete. Suddenly, he can't get any more fights. This situation couldn't have come at a worse time, as Frank's family has had a lot of trouble paying the bills lately. Within days, the Diaz family is served with an eviction notice. They pack their things and move into a homeless shelter. Frank gets work wherever he can; mostly off-the-books construction jobs. On Christmas Eve, the family receives a glimmer of hope. An apartment in the Bronx set aside for families in need has become available at a very low rate that the Diaz's are able to afford. The only catch is that Frank has to have an official full-time job. In fact, if he doesn't provide proof of employment by the end of the day, he'll be placed at the bottom of the list and be forced to wait until another apartment opens up. Determined not to let his family down, Frank spends the day attempting to find employment.
Where God Left His Shoes sounds like the title of a Lifetime movie, and there are certainly moments when the film feels like one. However, if you can forgive the film's melodramatic excesses, you'll find a moving and often truthful story that gets a lot of things right. The film's sincerity plays particularly well in contrast to the onslaught of Christmas-themed films that are only superficially heartwarming.
New York City is often a place of romance and fantasy in the movies, but in this film it seems more like a heartless, oppressive beast. It's cold, gray, unfriendly, and dirty. This is New York City from the perspective of a man down on his luck. I couldn't help but admire the frank objectivity with which the film portrays the living conditions of the Diaz family. The film certainly makes no effort to romanticize a life of poverty, but neither does it attempt to make things seem more horrific than they actually are. The filmmakers do an admirable job of restraining themselves from attempting to tell us how to feel about some of the things Frank Diaz does in this film, not asking us to embrace or condemn his actions but simply to have empathy for his situation.
Leguizamo turns in one of his finest performances in the lead role, offering a nuanced and truly heartfelt turn that has a way of digging into your soul. Frank is by no means a perfect person. Not only has he made some mistakes that have gotten him in trouble with the law from time to time, but he has a tendency give out terrible advice to his children and to act before he thinks. Nonetheless, he is a fundamentally decent human being, a loving husband and father who is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that his family is cared for. Leguizamo maintains a layer of quiet dignity that attempts to mask an inner frantic desperation, which is made all the more effective given the actor's tendencies to leap into manic behavior in many of his roles. Despite his smart-aleck attitude, accentuate-the-positive mentality and constant assurances, it's clear that Frank is a man who is slowly losing hope.
Given that Frank takes his young son Justin (David Castro, 27 Dresses) with him while on his job-hunting journey, many viewers will surely be reminded of the Will Smith drama The Pursuit of Happyness. Where God Left His Shoes is an example of what that film could have been, trading that film's aimless comic hijinks and obvious emotional manipulation for something considerably more truthful. Granted, the movie does occasionally go too far in terms of attempting to wring tears from the viewer (some situations go so spectacularly wrong that the film threatens to shift from reality to tragic fantasy), but Leguizamo's performance and the film's spot-on sense of everyday atmosphere keep things grounded at all times. The ending is not happy in the traditional sense, but I found it intensely moving. Beyond that, I don't want to say much more about the film, because a) just writing about the movie deeply saddens me, and b) not knowing where the film is going adds immeasurably to the viewing experience (avoid watching the trailer included on the DVD before you see the film).
The DVD transfer is merely okay. The color palette mixes muted grays and blacks with occasional splashes of seasonal flair, which is an effective look. Reds tend to bleed a bit at times, and detail is lacking (particularly background shots). Flesh tones are warm and accurate, though. The audio is smooth and clear in terms of music, as the various (often sentimental) Christmas songs come through with clarity, but the dialogue occasionally becomes just a little distorted. The sound design is effective, particularly during the scenes that take place on the crowded streets of New York. The only supplement on the disc is a theatrical trailer.
I've all ready touched on this, but many will undoubtedly feel that the movie is too manipulative. Granted, perhaps the particulars of this situation are a little bit contrived. Frank only has a day to find a job, and that day just so happens to be Christmas Eve? Come on. Even so, the challenges the Diaz family faces are very real, and there isn't a single thing that happens to any character in this film that hasn't happened to countless people in the real world. The plot structure might be a tad sensationalized, but the film's portrait of poverty most assuredly isn't.
Maybe it just hit me at the right moment from the right angle, but Where God Left His Shoes really affected me. The technical qualities are solid enough, but Leguizamo and the story are searing.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated