In America

dir. Sheridan

Opens Fri Dec 12

Fox Tower

Writing a bad review of In America is much like making fun of a person with special needs. It's a mean thing to do. Like a person composing a poem, the director and the actors seem to have put every part of their heart into this picture, and for their enthusiasm alone one should be as supportive as a mother. Everyone agrees that In America's motives are honorable--it wants to communicate a positive message in a world that has of late been so negative--and reviewer after reviewer has been impressed with its uplifting energy, its family and life affirmative values; it's a movie that is not good or bad but simply right.

The director of In America, Jim Sheridan, is not a special person, but he is celebrated as an important modern director. His first film, My Left Foot (a melodrama about a painter who suffers from cerebral palsy, and so paints with his only stable limb, his left foot), was a critical and commercial success that launched Daniel Day Lewis' career into stardom. Sheridan's third feature film, In the Name of the Father (an IRA melodrama that dealt with difficult social questions and also starred Daniel Day Lewis), was a big success. In America, Sheridan's sixth feature film, will be probably be his third big success--even with the blow of the bad review I'm about deliver.

Claimed to be his most personal film yet, In America is based roughly on the time Sheridan spent in New York City in the early '80s. For the sake of authenticity, it was co-written by his daughter, who was a girl during this time. The movie begins with a tense moment: A young Irish family in a beat-up car is attempting to enter the land of milk and honey from Canada. The father is trying to be cool, the mother is trying to look innocent, the two girls in the back seat are under strict orders to keep their traps shut. The immigration officer sternly looks at the girls, the husband and wife, and then breaks into a smile: "Welcome to the United States of America."

Once in, they travel to the heart of New York City, settle in a rundown apartment, and begin to build a new life as illegal immigrants. The father (Paddy Considine) drives a cab and pursues an acting career; the mother (Samantha Morton), who was a schoolteacher in Ireland, is reduced to being a cashier in an ice cream store. The girls (Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger), who have the biggest eyes for the biggest city, begin to attend a private Catholic school. The only thing working against this generally happy picture is a death that haunts the family. The youngest child, a boy, has recently died from complications caused by an accidental fall. The father blames himself for the loss of his only boy, and in one sense the film is about this sense of guilt and the way he overcomes it.

The film is also about a big black man (Djimon Hounsou), who lives downstairs from the Irish family, painting demons, forest fiends, and other evil-looking creatures of the night. It is later discovered that the big black man is not a mean monster but as gentle as lamb; it is also discovered that the big black man is dying of what seems to be AIDS. As if that weren't dramatic enough, while having sex one night, the father and mother's mingled bodies and expressions of pleasure is inter-cut with the big black man trying to paint something that is in his head but refuses to appear on the canvas. There is even a thunderstorm in the background; lightning flashes as the frustrated big black man tears the defiant canvas and the Irish couple orgasms. A baby results from this fantastic fuck.

The coming birth of the child, and death of the big black man, determines the remainder of the film. Beyond the rather curious (if not racist) way the big black man is coded (the source of life, the gentle giant, the beast amongst the beauties), the film is just too optimistic, too bright, too happy, too emotional. Sheridan always turns up the emotion in his films, but at least his earlier movies took place in faraway Ireland. When all this emotion is suddenly close to home, and out of its usual cultural environment, it's rather obnoxious and exasperating. Like a truck whose breaks have been tampered with, the emotion in this movie rolls uncontrollably down a steep road, swerving from side to side, until it finally hits a big tree. And this film crashes more than once: It crashes during the ridiculous sex scene; crashes during the ridiculous Halloween scene; and crashes during the ridiculous birth and death scene.

So, that is my bad review of the much-admired In America. Readers who want a positive review should feel free to read one available in USA Today, whose critic, Claudia Puig, lovingly concludes her review with this: "In America is touchingÉupliftingÉand hopefulÉand also just plain funny. There is not a false note among the five core performances, nor a false word in Sheridan's script. In America is a classic story of losing and finding faith told with heart, humor and emotional heft."