Nothing is free

“In America” tries its best, but it can’t escape Spielberg-like schmaltz.

by Tom Horgen

It appears director Jim Sheridan gulped down a little too much Spielberg when putting his new Irish exposition together.

Sheridan, known for the trio of intense, Irish-focused dramas he made with Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1990s (including “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father”), is back at it again. But this time the director has softened his approach. And in the process, possibly let his usually sharp political guard down. But when Spielberg’s on your mind, that can happen.

“In America” follows a struggling Irish family during the early 1980s as they get used to life in New York, where junkies roam the hallways of their decrepit building and a black man yells incessantly as he paints masterpieces a floor below.

The tinge of Spielbergian melodrama creeps in when the parents, Johnny and Sarah, take their two young daughters to “E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.” From there, the schmaltzy aura of Spielberg’s alien-as-peacemaker film never lets go. Johnny risks the rent money trying to win an E.T.

doll for his youngest daughter. Mateo, their stereotypical scary black neighbor, becomes an E.T. of sorts to the daughters. And it’s when we see Mateo nudging comfortably into his role as alien helper that the film runs into a bit of a problem.

While it’s obvious Sheridan’s intentions are in the right place – he’s peddling a message of class and racial harmony – it’s hard not to question the purpose of the Mateo character. When you get down to it, Mateo’s primary role in the film is to aid the family when tragedy strikes and to provide them (and us) with an exotic mascot for the ills of prejudice.

The Mateo character is reminiscent of what Spike Lee calls the “super-duper, magical Negro.” Lee uses this term to describe Hollywood’s trend of giving black characters extraordinary powers only so they can fix the problems of more privileged white characters.

Think about Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” tutoring Matt Damon’s golf swing during the Jim Crow 1930s. Or saintly Michael Clarke Duncan sacrificing his freedom to cure James Cromwell’s sick wife in “The Green Mile.” Lee scoffs at the idea of Hollywood implying that characters with such power would rather help wealthy whites than fight for fellow disadvantaged minorities.

To Sheridan’s credit though, Mateo is at least lending a hand – a very generous hand – to people who actually need it. And he also is far less exploited than the magical black characters in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Green Mile.”

So while the perplexing nature of the Mateo character should take precedence when watching the film, there are enough moments of raw intensity to remind you of Sheridan’s past glory.

Moments such as the initial, furious confrontation between Johnny and Mateo keep Spielbergian sentiment from overtaking the film completely. Sheridan might be slipping, but he still has enough restraint to keep “In America” from becoming pretentious.