Critics will tell you that Jim Sheridan’s In America is one of the best films of the year; a triumph of the heart that will bring you to tears of joy this holiday season. Friends and family will also tell you that In America is a wonder to behold; a tragic, yet uplifting tale about hope, redemption, and the struggles of faith and family. And I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if Oscar added his two cents, showering the film with multiple nominations. Thankfully, you have consulted Ruthless before these other, less reputable sources, and I’m here to offer you the only sane advice you’ll get during this, the “most wonderful time of the year” — avoid In America at all costs. Avoid it as you would a high school production of King Lear. Avoid it as you would a gathering of born-again Christians with love in their hearts. At bottom, this is one of the most revolting frauds of the year; an insufferable mix of cheap sentiment, sappy melodrama, childish spiritualism, and two of the least sympathetic characters I have ever been forced to endure in one sitting (I know I say that a lot, but I mean it this time).
Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton play an Irish couple recently arrived in the United States. With their two young daughters in tow (and the memory of a recently deceased son in their hearts), the two plucky and determined folks struggle (for all of 30 seconds) to find a place to live, decent jobs, and schooling for their girls. They move into what amounts to a crackhouse, although they seem happy enough. The mother gets a job as a waitress, and the father drives a cab at night while pursuing acting jobs during the day. In the midst of this, we watch them deal with the brutal New York City summers, panhandling neighbors, and a ferocious black artist who lives downstairs. Of course, and much to my disgust, the woman gets pregnant and, being an Irish Catholic, decides that bringing another life into an already desperate situation is exactly what the family needs. Add to this the complication that the pregnancy is life-threatening, and there is a good possibility that if the child is carried to term, the mother will die. Never once does she consider that her death might slightly inconvenience the rest of the clan. Her obliviousness — her utter and complete selfishness — is so difficult to swallow that any sympathy I might have had is taken away in an instant. I found myself saying: “If you are so blinded by your idiotic faith that you would risk everything just to bring another screaming brat into poverty, then I don’t give a flying fuck what the hell happens to you.” The film had hardly been groundbreaking up to that point, but every scene afterwards was tainted by the moronic actions of that narcissistic dipshit.
The film retreats further from sympathy and reality when it continues to explore the life of the black artist. Of course, he is dying of AIDS (although his disease is never mentioned, I guess in order to have it play in the South and Midwest without protest as a sympathetic homosexual is beyond their capacity to endure) and becomes just the sort of Noble African that the family needs to help find a miracle. This dark saint believes in the supernatural you see, and we are led to believe that his unyielding faith helps bring a dying newborn back to life just as he expires from his affliction. Dying newborn? Yes, dear readers, the baby is born too soon, which insures numerous scenes of heart-tugging drama whereby we watch a screaming mother, a stressed-out father, and gathering faces around the tiny tot in an incubator. But just when we think the lad will die, we cut to the saint and watch him breathe life into the baby with some sort of chant. Suddenly, the baby cries and all is well. But then there’s the matter of the $30,000 medical bill, which of course the irresponsible immigrants cannot account for. But yes! The dying artist was secretly wealthy (and yet lived in a slum) and has paid the hospital bill in full! Besides being an annoying contrivance, the turn of events endorses the outrageous behavior of the parents. Come to America! Take advantage of our generosity! Have babies you cannot afford! And someone else will pay! Tis a fine thing indeed.
And I’m sorry Jim, but if you insist that this is a film set in the early 1980s, then you cannot have E.T. playing alongside Ocean’s 11, nor can you feature redesigned $10 bills. And while we’re at it, how is Aida on Broadway and one of the daughters carrying a modern camcorder? Such errors are a sign of lazy filmmaking, which is reinforced by the clichés that pass for revelation. Fine, I hated the sweetness of it all and yes, the overt religious symbols made me ill, but I can assure you that my loathing stemmed most of all from a resistance to the plight of the family. When characters act stupidly, that is one thing. But when they expect to be applauded for it, I must protest with all of my might. Even worse, the director expects us to cry, as if deliberately compounding a bad situation is anything but psychotic.
The performances are fine and the girls are cute (and cannot be blamed for the decisions of their parents), but, predictably, that is not enough for this viewer. This story has been told before (and better) and I was not about to pretend that what I was watching was insightful or worthy simply because the director’s heart was in the right place. And besides, these people didn’t really suffer as far as I could tell, as they always had enough to eat, were never the victims of crime, and apparently had another guardian angel to pay for their dead son’s operations and lengthy hospital stay. What a life! We should all be so deprived that we can waltz into hospitals and never have to part with a cent. The only real struggle I witnessed was the father’s inability to cry since his son’s death, which of course is overcome with schmaltzy predictability. He finally says goodbye to his son as he pretends with his daughters that he can see the dead artist riding a bicycle across the face of the moon. It’s easy to have an emotional release when other people take care of your every need. If the immigrant experience is indeed this cushy, it’s no wonder why millions pound our shores yearly for a slice of the pie.