Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jan 26, 2004 2:34 pm 
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Location: California/NYC
In your candy-coated dreams

Despite vivid shots of a place near Hell’s Kitchen and a derelict-looking apartment building said to be full of dope fiends, Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America doesn't really come from “in” anywhere. Unless it's "in" the Sheridan family's highly distorted memory bank. The young couple and their two girls are standins for Jim et al., both real and fictional families having lost a little boy named Frankie before coming to live in New York (or "in" New York; or in "New York") in the early Eighties.

But nobody and no place seems real, except for a noble suffering black man of exotic origin, full of money and some disease. Even he, Mateo (the always impressive Djimon Hounsou), seems more super-real than real. Mateo shows the Irish filmmaker’s apparent love-hate relationship with African Americans: they appear both to attract him with their warmth and humanity and to terrify him with their dark mystery and repressed rage. His vision of Mateo evokes Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo with its “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room. . . Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.” When Mateo befriends Christy and Ariel you don't know whether he’s going to hug them or crush them. If he has AIDS, why is he so robust right up until the end?

Why does the whole family come to New York when the father has no job? How do they find a huge apartment in Manhattan -- in any kind of building — with no money? How, in these circumstances, can they afford to send their daughters to a Catholic school? How can even the stupidest family go and risk every penny of their rent money on a carnival doll? (An incident out of the corniest old movies, this is one whose manipulativeness is painful to watch). These are questions that can't be answered. This movie is simply a candy-coated dream of how it might have been.

“I didn’t know it was going to be a tear-jerker,” a viewer observed, walking out, but it’s hard to see how it could be anything else. The boy has died and the parents haven’t gotten over it. Their new life — we’re told -- is fragile but somehow they survive. This is the stuff of primitive melodrama. The ten-year-old daughter, Christy (Sarah Bolger, whose own sister plays her younger sibling) says, “I’ve been carrying this family on my back ever since Frankie died.” So you have her father (Paddy Considine) and her mother (Samantha Morton) as sad but driven childlike creatures whom this Shakespearean child must keep stable. That’s pathetic.

Considine has the tough job of playing an actor who does badly in auditions because he’s ceased to feel: he does it as appealingly as anyone could; but since he’s so often frantic, it’s hard to see that as not feeling. Samantha Morton, with a Jean Seeberg crewcut, is as ever very present, though checking in is about all she ever has to do. There’s no faulting the acting: the troubles go deeper. The little girls are as great together as you’d expect, and Hounsou is monumental in the emblematic role of Mateo.

But the movie ends by seeming little more than therapy for the filmmakers; it's obviously all about saying goodbye to their lost boy. It works considerably less well for the audience because Frankie to us is an abstraction, and because the hurdles to be overcome along the way to a stable life all seem contrived. All the events of In America are ones that in anyone’s life would seem grim and nightmarish; but, being represented in a way that’s ungrounded in recognizable reality, they come to seem little more than a self-serving fantasy. Other writers have amply demonstrated that the movie doesn’t achieve , or for that matter seek, even the most minimal degree of realism in setting or period; and they’ve pointed out that it’s hard to bewail the rude sufferings of a family that appears to live, not “In America,” but in a make-believe candy dream. Jim Sheridan has excelled at representing experiences outside his own immediate realm. He should stick to those.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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