2003Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou
t’s hard to make a truly interesting “feel-good” movie. There are countless examples of movies that go over the top with their stories of struggle and uplift, movies that often inspire nausea and cynicism where they attempt to inspire the soaring of hope and faith in human potential. You can practically see the plot strings jerk you around as they lead to the film’s inevitably “triumphant” conclusion, leaving you feeling resentful at the apparent condescension of the directors—“those idiot audiences will buy anything, as long as we load a good dollop of sugary sweetness onto this movie’s plotline” seems to be the common motto.
But there are movies that truly earn their happy endings, that treat their audiences with respect and intelligence and develop characters who seem to spring from real life, not some Hollywood cutout that can be plugged into any mediocre screenplay. Given the track record of Irish director Jim Sheridan, I was hoping In America would be just such a film. Unfortunately, I was only partially satisfied. Curiously enough, despite my aversion to the Swelling Cello Music school of feel-good movies, I found myself wishing In America wasn’t quite so laid-back, that it packed more of an emotional punch. Inconsistent, I know, given my caterwauling about excessively “uplifting” movies, but in my own defense, logical consistency ain’t the name of the game. Intellectual and emotional reaction is, and In America just didn’t inspire quite enough of either.
Despite both my disappointment and surprise, it’s important to point out that by any reasonable standard, In America has quite a lot to recommend it. Sheridan has established himself as a major talent over the last fifteen years, and here he is telling perhaps his most personal story. Johnny Sullivan (Paddy Considine) and his wife Sarah (the great Samantha Morton) are an Irish couple immigrating to New York in the mid-80s with their two young daughters. There was a third child, Frankie, whose tragic death back in Ireland casts a pall over the entire family, particularly Johnny. Sheridan’s own brother Frankie was ten years old when he died, and Sheridan dedicates the film to him; this is a director who knows whereof he speaks.
The film follows this family from their arrival in New York, and focuses on both their financial poverty (Johnny is a struggling actor who drives a cab at night, while Sarah works at the local ice cream parlor) and their emotional devastation from Frankie’s death. They find an apartment in a building featuring both a plethora of junkies and a neighbor the girls dub “the man who screams”, an African artist named Mateo whose slow death from AIDS inspires frequent raging howls from his downstairs apartment. In a development that will only come as a surprise if you’ve never seen a movie before, the two little girls bravely knock on Mateo’s door while trick-or-treating on Halloween and end up befriending him. Mateo, played superbly by Djimon Hounsou, grows closer and closer to the Sullivan family and ultimately becomes a key factor in Johnny’s slow acceptance of his son’s death.
There’s a lot of good raw material to work with here, and Sheridan pulls off a number of truly wonderful scenes, by turns either funny or moving. One bravura sequence intercuts between Johnny and Sarah making love and Mateo screaming alone in his room, slashing up his paintings (and himself) as lightning rages in the sky overhead. Another scene, which by far ranks as my favorite of the film, has Johnny confronting Mateo with his suspicion that the other man is in love with his wife, only to be completely blindsided by Mateo’s true revelation.
But there’s a “whole not as good as the sum of its parts” problem here. Ineffective subplots serve as distractions, such as the introduction of the idea that Johnny’s acting skills are hampered by his inability to feel real emotion after Frankie’s death. It’s not a plotline that Sheridan really returns to, except in a few brief words toward the end of the film. Furthermore, In America’s emotional punch is hampered by the fact that some of the characters are simply not developed. This is particularly true in the case of Mateo, whose story is fascinating but never really given any depth. I was left feeling that he served more as an archetype (strong quasi-mystical black man who helps redeem the suffering white family) than an actual character.
In America is still a film worth seeing. Indeed, given its generally rapturous critical response, many viewers might well react more strongly to it than I did. The acting is uniformly superb, the story is interesting, and Sheridan knows how to wield a camera. And I do appreciate the movie’s avoidance of heart-tugging cliches that could have truly doomed it to irrelevance. But the fact remains that this is a film always seemingly poised for greatness. Unfortunately, it never quite gets there.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-01-23