Brody's character, Sam Shapiro, catalyzes everybody else here to take action, so even though the movie isn't singularly focused upon him, we are never allowed to believe that the successes of the film's downtrodden workers could be possible without his unflagging charisma. This is too bad -- the only clinker in an otherwise jolting and impressive movie -- because it would be much more satisfying to watch the other leads claim their power without the assistance of this infinitely compassionate savior.
Oh, well; that notwithstanding, Loach has crossed the pond most admirably, reteaming with his screenwriter, Paul Laverty (My Name Is Joe, Carla's Song), to tell a tale of tarnished Tinseltown. Our focus is on Maya (newcomer Pilar Padilla), an ambitious young Mexican woman who employs some dangerously lusty but ultimately slow-witted coyotes to smuggle her across the border into the land of the . . . er . . . free. Arriving as an illegal immigrant on the doorstep of her ferociously jaded sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), she quickly discovers that L.A. isn't quite ready to welcome her as the next Jennifer Lopez.
Rosa's a busy lady, saddled with two kids and a perilously diabetic husband, Bert (Jack McGee), but she goes out of her way (and then some) to secure Maya a job cleaning high-profile office buildings with the so-called Angel company. Their boss, an aggressive bastard called Perez (comedian George Lopez), immediately coerces Maya to put forth her first month's measly salary as a startup fee ("Do you know how lucky you are?"), and life starts zooming downhill from there. The work is hard, the hours are inhumane, the pay is beans, and the benefits are virtually nonexistent. As a co-worker sagely puts it, "You know my theory about uniforms? They make us invisible."
Maya's presence is too bright to stay invisible for long, however, and soon enough she's spiriting Sam out of a reconnaissance mission in her garbage cart. Although Rosa isn't very receptive to the guy's pleas to let him help better their lot (and Bert jokes that his wife can't work late anyway, because "she plays golf"), eventually Maya connects with the boisterous "radical." Naturally, part of the attraction is an obligatory cinematic crush, but the Service Employees International Union holds appeal as well. Papers or no papers, Sam can help Maya, as can a wise, elder co-worker, who offers vacuuming advice: "Slow down! This ain't the Special Olympics!"
Sam may be dedicated, but his methods are sloppy, setting off a chain reaction within the Angel company that can't be easily neutralized. Perez discovers the workers' plan to pressure the tenants to pressure the building's owners to raise their salaries to a living wage, and hell is swiftly paid. While the resentful Rosa isn't exactly bothered, several people get the sack, and Maya's other novio, Reuben (Alonso Chavez), may lose his shot at attending USC's law school. Welcome to the working week.
Loach has captured the essence of Los Angeles (as in reality, hardly a moment seems to go by without a siren screaming or a dog barking), but it's hardly novel to point out that most of L.A. is coarse, loud, and rough. What's more valuable is the strike of the workers, modeled after the infamous "Battle of Century City" in 1990 and its annual commemoration on June 15 each year, Justice for Janitors Day. The themes here are obvious, and there's very little entertainment value at hand, but until Julie Taymor (or whoever) delivers a Janitors! musical, this is a fine study of the conflict.
Occasionally, Loach and Laverty slouch at their task, employing extremely glaring stereotypes (fat cracker executives, poor little Central American women) to make their case. Fortunately, between these fleeting moments of limpness (who knows, maybe they never saw El Norte), the capable cast comes bounding to the rescue. Lopez is gripping as the rotten supervisor ("Fuckin' elderly and fuckin' blind! Why don't you give me some fuckin' lepers!"), and Carrillo delivers a crushing scene with such intensity that only dead people won't flinch. Padilla is also very impressive, especially given that she didn't speak English before this project.
Speaking of which, another noteworthy aspect of the film is its brazen sense of bilingualism, with the subtitles constantly alternating between English and Spanish as the characters switch tongues, often within the same sentence. It's yet another reminder of the cross-pollination at work in L.A., woven through the struggles for economic balance and national identity. Although the film ends on a bittersweet note of triumph, in reality it's harder to determine a lasting solution to this exploitation. Perhaps -- and this is just a suggestion -- everyone should just clean their own toilets.