Made in America, a film about surprising discoveries, manages one of its own. The first half plays like a manic comedy, something along the lines of star Whoopi Goldberg’s performances in Ghost and Sister Act, but the second half dials back the energy and settles into a thoughtful romance, one that takes advantage of Goldberg and Ted Danson’s considerable and real-life chemistry.
But it takes awhile to see that, and the first hour of the movie is wasted on establishing the lead characters as opposing stereotypes. Goldberg plays Sarah Matthews, the fiery owner of a black bookstore, The African Queen, and mother to Zora (Nia Long), a star science student. Danson’s character, Hal Jackson, has an equally loud personality but is a used car salesman with a penchant for cowboy get-ups and acrobatic sex partners. The two come together when Zora finds out, via a blood typing assignment, that Sarah’s deceased husband is not her father and that she was conceived via mystery sperm. After asking her friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) to help break into the sperm bank, she learns that her biological father is none other than Hal.
What follows is endless hysterics, granted much of it justified, from all three characters. Zora can’t get over her mother’s deception and the fact that she is half white, Sarah is aghast that her requested donor, an intelligent black man, ended up being a hee-haw showboat, and Hal doesn’t know how to handle the sudden intrusion of two black women into his life. The scandal is dominated by race and ensuing questions of identity, but any nuanced examination of this is overshadowed by a misguided attempt at physical comedy. This newfound reality creates its own fireworks, but the movie decides it needs to throw in a circus to draw out the humor. There are literally a bunch of circus animals parading around, all in the service of Hal’s daffy television ads, and I wish they’d traded the dancing elephant and monkey for some tamer conversation scenes.
It’s apparent how unnecessary this noisy clash of personalities is when the story finally quiets down, and that’s when the movie starts to do something special. Once Sarah and Hal shed their comic exteriors, you suddenly see two very real people inhabiting these roles, two deliberating adults trying to make sense of this confusion. It’s delightful watching Goldberg and Danson together. Rather than broad, showy gestures, they allow their relationship to reveal itself in details, like the way Sarah holds her gaze at Hal after a first date and the way he kisses her. It leaves you longing for more, both from the couple and from movie relationships in general.
Long contributes a great deal to this chemistry too. She gives Zora a tenacious spirit worthy of an MIT-bound student but also a vulnerability of a young woman who wants and needs her parents in her life. I also liked Smith’s performance, which didn’t carry as much emotional weight as the others but still proved to be inspired comic relief. It’s no wonder things worked out for the young star.
The strong cast allows you to make an investment with a good payoff in the end, but I can’t help but think about how this movie plays out in 2017, some twenty-five years after its release. The electricity and honesty of Goldberg and Danson’s middle-aged, interracial relationship is still a rarity, and as surprised as I was to see it in this time capsule of a film, I was reminded at how surprised I would be to see that portrayed in any movie today. There are other more questionable eyebrow-raising moments though. Despite Hal’s connection to Sarah, he is bold enough to use their brief and tenuous history to suggest taking certain liberties with her on their first night out. It’s presumptuous and offensive. A pair of elderly white ladies who visit Sarah’s shop also make an impression, though not a good one. In what’s supposed to be a jab at their ignorance on the history of white racism – they claim to have “had no idea we’d done so many awful things,” the humor and mockery doesn’t register. Instead, it amplifies the shocking sense of privilege that contributes to the racism we continue to experience.
Prod: Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, Jennifer Tilly
Time: 111 min
Country: United States