Living for the City

A naive foreigner with a funny accent arrives in New York City and learns some tough lessons about survival before adapting and ultimately triumphing over adversity. Quick, that describes:

(A) Coming to America
(B) The Godfather, Part 2
(C) Crocodile Dundee
(D) An American Tail
(E) Tarzan's New York Adventure
(F) All of the above, and then some

The correct answer is "(F) All of the above, and then some." Add to that list the engaging but predictable new film Nueba Yol, which chronicles the misadventures of a widower from the Dominican Republic, Balbuena, who mortgages his house to buy a visa and an airline ticket to New York ("Nueba Yol" in Dominican slang), where, according to one of Balbuena's ne'er-do-well amigos, "you can pick dollars like heads of lettuce." Needless to say it isn't quite that simple.

Don't expect Nueba Yol to till any tierra nueba. The fish-out-of-water shtick has been done a hundred times before, from the comic vexation at routine elements of big-city life A multiple door locks, security intercoms, a labyrinthine subway system A to the harsher realities of poverty, crack, exploitation of cheap labor, and the pain of assimilation. Yet the film rises above the usual cliched situations and stereotypes thanks to the winning performance of Luisito Marti, a television comedian whose nuanced portrayal of Balbuena lends the character -- and the film -- wry humor and refreshing dignity.

With his puffy face, heavy-lidded eyes, goofy gap-toothed grin, and ever-present beret and dangling hair pick, Marti doesn't look much like a matinee idol. But the one-time percussionist (the film makes room for one scene showcasing Marti's conga-playing skills) for salsero Johnny Ventura possesses a musician's impeccable timing, a comedian's delivery, and an actor's instincts. And he knows Balbuena like few actors understand their roles; after all, Marti himself developed the character more than a dozen years ago for the Dominican TV series Show del Mediodia (Noontime Show). His creation touched a nerve; so many fans tuned in to the program on a daily basis to follow Balbuena's doomed attempts to reach New York that the character became part of the Dominican national lexicon. Prospective emigrants even became known as Balbuenas.

In Nueba Yol, Balbuena finally realizes his twelve-year-old obsession, fulfilling a dream shared by many Dominicans. The film became something of a cultural phenomenon in its homeland, obliterating box-office records in Santo Domingo when it opened last summer. But cracking the U.S. market is a different story. Your typical American moviegoer wouldn't know Balbuena from Balboa (well, maybe from Rocky Balboa). Good thing, then, there's Marti's endearing performance. Without it, Nueba Yol would have about as much hope of finding stateside success as would an immigrant without a green card.

Nueba Yol.
Written and directed by Angel Muniz; with Luisito Marti, Raul Carbonell, Rafael Villalona, Caridad Ravelo, and Alfonso Zayas.

 
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