In America (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Break out your insulin. Did we really need a remake of An American Tail with live actors?

In America is a sentimental tale of an Irish family moving to America in the early 80s, and is about halfway between a fairy tale and one of those "miracle of life through a child's eyes" films like To Kill a Mockingbird.

It really wants to tell the story of how newcomers to the United States have had to struggle, not at the turn of the century, but in recent decades. The problem is that it can't bear to tell the truth. In reality, a typical family of recent immigrants would be very unlikely to try to live in Manhattan, so their lives would be much better than this.

But, and this is the key point here, if they did try to live in Manhattan their lives would be much worse than this. The film tries to show the hardship of life, not in a realistic and truthful way, but to show a level of hardship that any of us could consider facing and overcoming, as we imagine our grandparents and great-grandparents once did. It is all calculated to let us feel the enduring nature of the human spirit - thus of our own spirit.


Samantha Morton is topless during a long lovemaking scene. Unfortunately, it takes place in virtual darkness except for an occasional lightning bolt, and it was shot to preserve a PG-13 rating, so there is only an occasional fleeting glimpse of her breasts.

Jim Sheridan, the Irish director, did actually move his family to New York in 1982, and his own two daughters co-wrote this script with him. Unfortunately, they didn't really tell their own story, but simply harvested elements from it to create a fictional family far more impoverished and isolated than the Sheridans were, but who came to New York at the same time.

The family of four, including the requisite adorable daughters, and the mandatory specter of a son lost to a tragic accident, land in a tenement in Hell's Kitchen. Here are some of the things that happen:

(1) Their run-down tenement house has no rats or cockroaches.

(2) Although they barely have enough money to pay the rent on their pathetic flat, they can afford to send their children to private schools.

(3) Unlike most immigrants, they have absolutely no support group in the United States. They have no family, no friends, and no ethnic or religious community to lean on for support. I might understand that if they were Uzbeks raised in the atheistic Soviet Union, but they are Irish, fer chrissakes! After the 1980 census the American Sociological Review had an article called "How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans". Forty million. In New York City alone, there were 600,000-700,000 people who identified themselves as Irish in 1980. You'd think this family might run into at least one or two, especially since their kids are in Catholic schools! But, no-o-o-o-o. They are isolated.

(4) In all the time they live in squalor, amid prostitutes and junkies, neither the parents not the children really face any serious danger. Everyone in the neighborhood seems to live lives of colorful but resigned poverty that would make Francis of Assisi seem as bitterly materialistic as Donald Trump.

(5) The mother and father, in order to have some lovemaking privacy, allow their two daughters, aged about 11 and 4, to go down by themselves to the Ice Cream parlor on their block. In NYC. In Hell's kitchen. Nobody kidnaps them, molests them, robs them, or shoots them full of heroin. They are not inadvertently caught in any gunplay or knife fights.

(6) The father gets shilled into a carnival con-game, gets to the point where he has almost lost every penny, then miraculously pulls off a winning shot to get all his money back and win his little girl an E.T. doll. This was actually a very good scene up until the point where he won. I was feeling his shame and his obsession, and I had to turn away my eyes in embarrassment for him at having been conned out of their meager earnings. It would have been a brilliant scene if he had lost, which in real life, he would have. But the opportunity to show how the hard types of the world prey upon the naive and innocent was lost when he won everything, and my instinctive reaction was to do a Delta Cough. {cough} blowjob {cough} bullshit {cough}.

(7) The howling, crazy man on the floor beneath them turns out to be ... well, it turns out to be Djimon Hounsou playing the same role he always plays - the forbidding, buff black man who glares imposingly, and who seems to present the threat of violence and intense sexuality, but is actually the possessor of great mystical wisdom, resigned martyrdom, the gentle forgotten secrets of older cultures, and an inner nobility and compassion that guides white people on their path to spiritual enlightenment. If you need that guy in your film, call Djimon's agent, because the big man has that role nailed. Oh, did I mention that he's dying courageously of AIDS? So he can handle that role for you, too, if Kevin Kline is busy.

(8) An adorable little girl in a cowboy hat sings the entire song "Desperado" over a montage, while a nun plays a piano accompaniment.

I haven't even hit all the major points, but you get the idea.

This film is meant to tug at your heartstrings. You witness the bravery of the mother through an impossible pregnancy, and of Djimon in the face of pain and imminent death. You experience the innocent acceptance of the kids as they adapt to their new surroundings. You watch the father's dead heart learn to love again. You meditate on the loss of a child, for those of you who missed the dead children in 21 Grams and The Station Agent, or for those of you who just can't get enough tragically dead kids. Can we declare a moratorium on using dead children for emotional manipulation?

Some of the unlikely events mentioned above are explained by three miracles generated by the three magic wishes of the elder daughter, who narrates the story. The dad wins the unbeatable con-game because the daughter uses one of those wishes, which have been granted through the authority invested in dead and mourned sons by the powers beyond the grave.

You know, the usual tear-jerking bullshit magical realism stuff.

Yes, the film does work from time to time. Jim Sheridan knows how to make a film, even if he has nothing to say. The story doesn't always feel false because some of the incidents came from his own family's experiences, and even when scenes do feel manipulative, the director knows how to milk the tears from your eyes, even against your will. He works like those magicians that tell you how they're doing the trick, but fool you anyway. The two kids are terrific at behaving wise and adorable in the typical precocious Disneychild manner. I'll admit the film got me misting over a couple of times and, let's be honest, just about everyone but me loved this movie. Check out the scores below.

Maybe I'm just jaded and cynical.

I suppose I am, but cynical or not, I found it heart-warming, but false, like those cartoon movies with the adorable immigrant mice named Mousekewitz. Hey, didn't Fievel sing as well? At least it wasn't an Eagles song.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by director/writer Jim Sheridan

  • 9 deleted scenes with optional commentary

  • Making-of featurette

  • Alternate ending

  • Full-screen and widescreen anamorphic formats

As I see it, the director (Jim Sheridan) and his two daughters should have dug deep inside and written about the way it really was for them when Jim moved them all to New York in 1982 to take the job as director of the New York Irish Arts Center. That would have been a story about a real family. That would have been the truth, and would probably have been a great movie.

Instead, they chose to tell half-truths, to imagine what it must have been like for people in more difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, they simply didn't know that story, so they filled it out with inaccurate imaginings of Manhattan poverty, details from their own life that didn't apply to these people (private schools!), "miracles", and imaginary tragedies (the dead son).

The ordinary truth - it would have been so simple.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 8.1/10, Yahoo voters call it a B+.
  • Box Office Mojo. It was an arthouse smash. Although never in more than 500 theaters, it lasted six months and grossed $15 million (as well as $9 million overseas.)
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. I would have said C+, but I had to knock off a half grade for the adorable little kid in a cowboy hat singing "Desperado" from start to finish.

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