IN AMERICA imports an impressively acted but likelihood-shy 2002 drama, directed by Jim Sheridan, written by the director and his daughters Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, taking a real loss in their family (Jim’s 10-year-old brother) and employing it as an examination of the depth and cost of grief, the power of hope and belief over despair, and the ups and downs of being an immigrant adjusting to a strange new place and uncertain life.
In the early 1980s, an Irish family of four slide into the US through Canada on a tourist visa and settle into a dilapidated tenement apartment in Manhattan’s long-rowdy “Hell’s Kitchen”. ‘Johnny & Sarah Sullivan’ (Paddy Considine & Samantha Morton) love each other fiercely, but the tragic death of their little boy haunts them, crippling them emotionally as they manage ‘Christy’ and ‘Ariel’, their two precocious daughters, seek employment (Johnny’s a struggling actor) and eke out a precarious hold on their shoddy dwelling, surrounded by unsavory characters. One is ‘Mateo’ (Djimon Hounsou), a reclusive Nigerian artist who rages like a madman for reasons to be discovered as the story progresses.
The adults are excellent, and the kids are pure naturals—Sarah & Emma Bolger, 9 and 6, are charmers (which continued into adulthood: no slight to Emma, but Sarah is a raving beauty). Most critics waxed ecstatic (below) and Morton was Oscar-nominated as Best Actress, Hounsou as Supporting Actor, and the Sheridan trio for their Screenplay.
While the cast excel, the take from this humble abode (siding with the minority view again) is that the script, while no doubt sincere, too often feels synthetic; for a story purporting to paint swaths of real-life place and plight, it has gaping holes of convenience, basic money and safety logic and pseudo-Capraesque wishful thinking that leave you duly impressed with the performing but unconvinced and unmoved by the set-ups and heart-tugs. For example, the imposing Hounsou is a hard guy to dislike, with his striking visage and powerful delivery (38, he was on a roll—Amistad, Gladiator, later Blood Diamond ) but the Mateo character unfortunately comes off as one of the “magical Negro” subset that screenwriters are so fond of—and he’s given AIDs to boot here, so the beset Sullivan’s can heal their wounds—and ours, see—through contact with the doomed Earth-Father. Trope 101 dictates the unafraid kids lead the injured adults out of their darkness and into the light (of Hell’s Kitchen?). Fine, cool, whatever, but a little string-yank obvious. The family and their issues I can buy: the neighbors, neighborhood, and notions are more trick than treat. *
For moi—and I’m equally as much a sucker for sentiment as I am a scout for sham—while the delivery rates applause, the vehicle needs a tuneup. At any rate, it’s the sort of Oscar-bait that gets some critics to gush mush like Victoria Falls in the wet season. One we quote (minus name, just trust me) swooned “Because it’s delicately manipulative and the characters are so precisely emotional. And because Sheridan’s manner with the material makes crying seem like a cleansing, an affirmation that something so simple and sweet can still move us . . . I loved this unassuming, heartfelt little gem, even if I couldn’t stop sobbing for an hour after the show.”
Honestly, Aunt Pittypat? You can’t “stop sobbing for an hour” after someone you love dies, not after a movie starts its credit crawl, no matter how good it is. Pleeeez, already, with a crutch, even…
An A for the actors, a C+ for the package. 105 minutes, with Adrian Martinez and Jason Salkey. Grosses came to $25,384,000.
* Per the sequence where Considine heroically hauls the air conditioner through the traffic and up the stairs, I can somewhat relate. Thankfully the neighborhood wasn’t anything like the fabled Hell’s Kitchen, but once upon a 100-degree day I laid out a hundred desperate bucks for a used p.o.s. air unit the same size and shape as the one he battles (pictured below). Hefted it, grim and panting, down several blocks and up four flights of stairs. Got it into the window, turned it on—and it knocked out the lights for the entire floor. After giving forth with the names of the Christian triumvirate and select company, I grabbed a beer (or four) and trudged up onto the roof. Gazing across the city I spied a 24-story complex about a mile away and—movie character style—made up my mind “THAT is my next home!” A few days later I was in my first (only, it turned out) swank high-rise with a view—and air conditioning. Pioneer stock rose to the occasion, Remember Pearl Harbor, etc…