Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

MADE IN AMERICA (1993) ** 3/5

Directed by Richard Benjamin. Written by Holly Goldberg Sloan, from a story by Marcia Brandywynne and Sloan. Photography, Ralf Bode. Editing, Jacqueline Cambas, Music, Mark Isham, Production design, Evelyn Sakash. Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, et al. A Warners release. 120 minutes. PG-13.
Back in 1972, Woody Allen broke filmic ground of sorts by playing Sperm in one of the episodes of "Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask.) " By now, 21 years later, sperm has come of age in films, including "Made in America," a silly, innocuous and would-be romantic comedy.

The movie entertained me, but then I saw it under ideal conditions. To wit: I attended a morning screening, which means that the long day had not yet fatigued me and my critical disposition was on the tolerant side. The theater empty but for a couple of Whoopi-ite friends who came along . We were not subjected to a crowd whose laughter often comes at the wrong moments.

Since the film had been around for some weeks, I had seen negative or very mixed reviews and, expecting the worst I found much of the film enjoyable. Of course, in restrospect, the movie is slighter, kinda dumber and more forgettable than when you watch it. Even so -- at least by TV sitcom standards-- "Made in America" is a cute little picture.

In Oakland, California, Sarah (Goldberg) runs an African-American bookstore with paraphernalia and objets d'art. The place is called "The African Queen," a name that could be seen initially as allusive, given the gayness of at least one of her employees. But this is either a red herring or a politically correct joke. The real subject attempted is black and white relations.

It all starts with a most unlikely school-lab session where the students are frantically pricking one another to establish blood types. Sarah's daughter Zora (Nia Long), a top graduating senior, discovers that her late father could not have been her progenitor.

She faces her mother who admits that after losing her husband she wanted a child so badly that she resorted to a sperm bank. Zora is understandably upset but quickly pacified by Sarah, with whom she has a wonderful relationship. Even so, understandably Zora wants to know who that biological father was.

She dragoons her classmate and best male friend Tea Cake (Smith) into a visit to a sperm bank. Tea Cake provides the excuse and the laughs. Zora, one of the computer whiz-kids of Generation X (cf. "Jurassic Park" and remember "WarGames" and many other flicks) taps into the records and finds out the name and Social Security number of the donor.

It is all improbable, as is Zora's lightning fast tracking down of the man. She is horrified to discover that he is white, while Sarah, equally shocked, worries about what all this will do to her daughter.

Note however that the movie is politically correct all the way and makes short shrift of color differences.This has a comforting effect on audiences that increasingly see black Americans and black-white relations in contexts of racism, strife and violence.

What especially outrages Sarah is not so much that Hal Jackson (Danson) is not black but that he is crass, loud, superficial and obnoxious. The owner of Jackson Motors, he is a car dealer who invades the TV screen with commercials that feature him in stunts with animals. Twice divorced, hard-drinking, chain-smoking and played convincingly as a dumbo, Hal lives in a beautiful home with Stacy (Jennifer Tilley) a bimboid aerobics instructor who exhausts him sexually and whose brainlessness is apparent even to the empty-headed Hal.

Following confrontations between Sarah and Hal, miscellaneous sheenanigans and physical mishaps involving people, a bear, an elephant, a bicycle and a car accident, there grows (predictably) real affection between Sarah, Zora and Hal, and love inevitably blossoms between Mama and Papa.

The movie is almost mathematically divided into four half-hour quarters. The first is very funny. The second less so but still amusing. Parts three and four struggle for what to do next. Groping for a "denouement" they respectively stress feelings and romance, and throw in a plot twist (we can see it coming) before the happy, warm ending.

There's no character development to speak of here, just superficialities and arbitrary changes, the most incredible causing Danson to reform suddenly, throw away his smokes and booze and become calm and sweet.

The naysaying reviewers find the Goldberg-Danson relationship to be the film's saving grace, but in fact Sarah and Hal generate neither mutual electricity nor sexiness. Yet each in his/her way, does have a special kind of charm.

The film's main lure lies in its comedic and slapstick effects -- broad, even cheap, but often rib-tickling -- and in the supporting cast. Young Nia Long ("Boyz N the 'Hood") is appealing. Jennifer Tilly is droll. She is not even mentioned in the movie's information materials -- a cruel omission since she's a show-stealer in her blend of airheads a la Gloria Grahame, Marilyn Monroe and others.

Excellent too is actor-rapper Smith ("The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" on TV). He is very likable, a kinetic delight who delivers his lines with sympathetic zest. This makes up a lot for a sketchy part that leaves us confused about Zora's relationship with him.

Movie veterans will spot, as one of the production assistants who are making the Hal Jackson commercials, a dead ringer of the young Richard Benjamin. The end credits list him as Ross Benjamin. It's nice to have a papa in the business.

PS. Above written in 1993. A 1996 re-viewing on cable TV yields the same positive reactions to this often underrated, even maligned comedy.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel