An odd hybrid of adult child in-search-of-mother quest and lurid border-town pulp, Americanomarks the first feature of actor Mathieu Demy as a writer-director. His legacy as the son of two major filmmakers may set up burdensome expectations, but here a dearth of narrative imagination causes his debut to quite literally go south around the 45-minute mark. Struggling with a fraying relationship, real-estate agent Martin (Demy) flies to his boyhood home in Venice, California, after learning of the death of his long-estranged mother. Scattered memories of youth (represented by clips of young Demy in an early-’80s film by his estimable mother, Agnès Varda) and the chastisements of his mom’s caregiver (Geraldine Chaplin, vaguely comic as an exposed nerve wearing a Dodgers cap) take their toll on Martin, who, accidentally discovering evidence of an ambiguously intimate relationship between his deceased mom and a Mexican neighbor—named Lola for Anouk Aimée’s role in the masterpiece by Demy’s father Jacques—he barely remembers as a playmate, dashes from the morgue to Tijuana, perhaps yearning for an idea of what his lost parent truly valued and loved.
After exhibiting flashes of genuine wit (an L.A. embalmer tells Martin, “Your mother was a beautiful woman…You’ve got great skin”), Americano then swiftly deflates with a slew of lazy and frequently offensive clichés: Martin, parking Chaplin’s Mustang (and the unsigned deed to Mom’s condo) in front of a sketchy hotel, receives the streetwise counsel of a plucky street kid (Pablo Garcia) who steers him to the titular, neon-red bar, home to the putative lost playmate in the form of a magenta-wigged, cheek-scarred stripper (Salma Hayek, inevitably) and a potentially lethal manager-pimp (Carlos Bardem). As Hayek writhes around her pole lip-synching “I’m so tired of America,” then like clockwork moves from surly to vulnerable in her private sessions with the probing Frenchman, Demy’s performance remains clouded with one-note inertia, and the identities of Hayek and Garcia’s characters are telegraphed with amateurish clumsiness. Proving to be as panicked as his protagonist about his own cinematic inheritance, Demy packs his last reels with everything from fire to knife play; his kernel of promise behind the camera needs to embrace the confidence, if not necessarily the style, exuded by the excerpts of Varda’s film that periodically expand Americano to intimate, human scale.
A man struggles to come to terms with his past as well as his family relationships in this drama. Martin (Mathieu Demy) was born in Los Angeles and spent much of his childhood there, but his parents were from France, and when his mother (Sabine Mamou) went through a nervous breakdown, his father relocated to Europe and took the boy with him. Martin rarely saw his mother again, and her absence left a void in his life that has impacted his relationships with women ever since, most recently his on and off romance with Claire (Chiara Mastroianni). When Martin receives word that his mother has died, he travels to California to take care of the arrangements with the help of Linda (Geraldine Chaplin), one of his mother’s best friends. Martin intends to clear everything away as quickly as possible and return home, but talking with Linda and going through his mother’s effects causes him to question his feelings about her, and when he sees an old snapshot of himself with his mom and a woman named Lola, he suddenly becomes obsessed with finding her. Martin’s obsession leads him to Tijuana, where he falls for a stripper named Lola (Salma Hayek) who embodies the strength and joie de vivre that Martin has lost. Americanowas the first feature film from writer, director and actor Mathieu Demy, the son of filmmakers Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda; clips from Varda’s 1981 film Documenteur are used in the film’s flashback sequences.