Tribeca 2024 Review: ¡CASA BONITA MI AMOR! Honors the Real-Life Restaurant Behind SOUTH PARK

Directed by Arthur Bradford, the documentary delves into the arduous efforts by Trey Parker and Matt Stone to resurrect a beloved restaurant.

Contributing Writer
Tribeca 2024 Review: ¡CASA BONITA MI AMOR! Honors the Real-Life Restaurant Behind SOUTH PARK

Several TV shows have iconic food establishments. For example, Friends had the Central Perk Cafe, Breaking Bad featured El Pollos Hermanos, and The Simpsons had the Kwik-E-Mart cafe. All of them eventually became erected on the grounds of real-life promotional tie-ins in New York City, South by Southwest, and Universal Studios theme parks.

Unlike the TV show food establishments mentioned above, Casa Bonita stands out as a Mexican restaurant with a unique origin story. It made its one-time epochal appearance in a season 7 eponymous episode of South Park. What's fascinating is that it's not just a fictional creation, but a real restaurant in Lakewood, Colorado, founded in 1968.

This is the place where South Park's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone dined during their childhood. In Arthur Bradford's ¡Casa Bonita Mi Amor! (2024), Parker, Stone, and many other Casa Bonita enthusiasts share what "the Disneyland of Mexican restaurants" means to them.

The documentary delves into Parker and Stone's arduous efforts to resurrect the restaurant after it filed for bankruptcy in 2021. Archival news footage, past South Park clips, and on-the-street interviews with fans of the show and restaurant accompany the restaurant's renovations.

A key moment is the duo's 2012 visit with the cast and crew of their Tony Award-winning musical The Book of Mormon (2011) to celebrate its production. This early scene sets Stone and Parker's decades-long admiration for the place and how they can overcome its challenges, such as the chlorine and rotten scent. However, the narrative takes a dramatic turn when Parker and Stone discover the need to gradually increase their budget due to poor HVACs, lousy flooring, and other maintenance issues threatening the restaurant's revival. This twist creates a palpable sense of suspense and concern, drawing the audience deeper into the story.

While Bradford did a commendable job of interviewing the people involved with the restaurant's reconstruction and the new hires, it needs to adequately capture the voices of the recent workers who had to search for other means of income during the reconstruction. Their perspective, a crucial part of the narrative, needs to be addressed, a significant oversight in the storytelling. This missed opportunity raises questions about the documentary's perspective and the voices it chooses to amplify.

For a restaurant to have its name follow Mexican culture, the film needs to explain how the owner, Bill Waugh, gave the space its origin story in archival interviews or how other key workers examined how Casa Bonita came to be. Parker later went to Oaxaca "to look for ideas'' with the new layout instead of "authenticity." He also writes a "song similar to Elvis Presley's Spanglish music" in his 1963 album Fun in Acapulco. Parker then replies Casa Bonita "is [about] super white dudes singing Mexican songs."

Parker's joke is aligned with his show's politically incorrect comedy and Parker's awareness of the colonization of these environments. However, there's no actual digging on what it means for white people of European descent to be in charge of an establishment that caters to Mexican food.

¡Casa Bonita Mi Amor! is a mesmerizing, albeit foggled, soliloquy of dreams and worship. In true South Park fashion, triumph prevails over the most challenging obstacles in this out-of-this-world objective -- to avoid spoiling it. Fiction mirrors reality as Stone and Parker deploy their signature meta humor to explore how their actual self and onscreen surrogates have similarities rather than differences in their make-believe adventures.

The film enjoys its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

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Arthur BradfordMatt StoneTrey ParkerTribeca 2024Tribeca Festival

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