|Made in America|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 01 June 2004|
The best-known aspect of this movie, which did well at the boxoffice, was the real-life romance between Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg, which lasted a couple of years. Will Smith is in it, too, but has only a supporting role in which he makes little impression.
Although Goldberg's role was originally written for a white woman, having a black one play the part gives an extra kick to the basic idea. She plays Sarah Matthews, an independent, single mom living in the San Francisco area who's made a solid life for herself and her teenaged daughter Zora (Nia Long). But Zora is a whiz at science; she examines her own blood, and discovers that the man she thought was her father wasn't at all. Sarah admits that she wanted a daughter enough that she dealt with a sperm back, so ith the help of her somewhat ditzy friend Tea Cake (Will Smith), Zora checks out the sperm bank -- and discovers that her father is a crude, overbearing but successful used car salesman named Hal Jackson (Ted Danson). What's more, he's white.
He and Sarah have furious arguments, but of course, they also fall for one another, which leads to complications and one of those "surprises" that's really anything but.
Unfortunately, once writer Holly Goldberg Sloan sets up this premise, the plot doesn't develop much further. The situation is set up, and just kind of stays set up. This two-headed monster of a movie is loud, vulgar and crude; it doesn't have much of a plot, and the characters lurch from repellent to appealing, sometimes in the same scene. The first two-thirds is crammed with so much slapstick a pie in the face wouldn't have been out of place. Not only does Ted Danson wrestle with a bear while mugging outrageously at the camera, but he rides a runaway elephant into San Francisco Bay, emerging dripping wet with the brim of his big red cowboy hat hanging down around his ears. After vigorous love-making, his girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) literally cartwheels into the bathroom.
Benjamin directs as if he read a book on The Theory and Practice of Directing Slapstick. He shoves the camera in close enough to count the pores on Danson's nose, and has the usually laid-back actor grimace, bug out his eyes, and all but take pratfalls. The soundtrack is cranked up to top volume, with everyone shouting their lines and Mark Isham's (rather good) score blaring. Bears roar, elephants trumpet, horns honk. This might be entertaining to run through home sound equipment, but it doesn't make for a better movie, even if it is funny much of the time in a brassy, obvious way.
Poignant undertones begin to creep in, centering mostly on Hal's increasing sense of mortality. He is touched by and curious about Zora, and begins to think that maybe being a father would be good, not bad, and also that Sarah isn't quite the shrew he first thought she was. Danson is actually a lot better at this more tender, introspective stuff than he is at the slapstick comedy, when he seems embarrassed.
When it shifts to a more serious tone in the last third, this works much better than the comedy; the casting gets us past the fact that no one bothered to make the characters very appealing. Though they're trying to make Sarah a kind of carefree spirit, Sloan and Benjamin instead make her seem amazingly uncaring about anything and anyone except her daughter. Hal is an over-the-hill loutish womanizer, popular with his employees at his car-and-truck lot, but shallow and crude.
But because they are played by Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson, we actually are pretty much willing to forgive Sarah and Hal almost anything. When they finally do leap almost violently into one another's arms, not anywhere near enough motivation has been laid for the characters, but again, it's okay because the two actors have brought so much goodwill with them. Nia Long has an angelic face and a winning personality; when she smiles we're happy, when she's sad, we're gloomy right along with her. Will Smith isn't a tenth as funny as funny as he clearly thinks he is, although he does get some laughs.
It's got a bright, sassy look, thanks to cinematographer Ralf Bode and production designer Evelyn Sakash, although the DVD transfer is panned-and-scanned, damaging Bode's compositions. Of course, you've got to admire a movie set in the San Francisco Bay Area that never shows us Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the Transamerica Pyramid or even the Golden Gate Bridge.