- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

“In America” makes a persuasive case for Irish matriarchy at the expense of a floundering young family man called Johnny Sullivan, a less-than-flattering alter ego contrived by filmmaker Jim Sheridan.

Best known as the writer-director of “My Left Foot,” which brought Daniel Day-Lewis the 1989 Academy Award as best actor, Mr. Sheridan spent much of the 1980s in Manhattan as the director of a small theater company, the Irish Arts Centre. This particular professional association has vanished from “In America,” which fictionalizes a great deal about the West Side odyssey of Mr. Sheridan and his family.

Evidently, he feels some lingering regret about putting loyal womenfolk through an ordeal. This storm-tossed but ultimately affirmative domestic tear-jerker seems intended to repay intimate emotional debts in a public fashion, but you can’t help wondering if Mr. Sheridan overdoes it when showcasing the weaknesses of his own counterpart.

The eldest Sheridan daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, now in their 30s, are credited as co-writers. Presumably, they’re the prototypes for the movie’s radiant and winning juvenile team, sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, cast as Christy and Ariel Sullivan, ages about 11 and 8, respectively.

An affectionate but often oblivious dad, Johnny (Paddy Considine) is identified as a struggling actor who works as a cabbie to help make ends meet when the Sullivans rent the handiest lodging they can afford: the top floor flat in a tenement located in the erstwhile Hell’s Kitchen district. Johnny’s stouthearted wife Sarah (Samantha Morton in a vibrant performance) also works, in a nearby ice cream parlor, while the girls attend parochial school.

Certain episodes evoke the period in an admirably distinctive way, notably the Sullivans beating the summer heat of 1982 by taking refuge in one of the air-conditioned movie theaters playing Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.”

A believable social sting and poignance also strengthen the Halloween interlude, when the girls realize that their homemade costumes are an object of pity at a school party — so pitiable that the faculty adds a “special” award for homemade costumes, intensifying their sense of poverty and humiliation.

The same holiday occasions one of the script’s shameless sentimental inventions. Determined not to miss out on the trick-or-treat tradition even if none of the neighbors is responsive, the girls go banging on apartment doors and finally rouse the most feared and reclusive resident, a fuming black artist called Mateo, played by Djimon Hounsou (“Amistad” and “The Four Feathers”). Within this bear’s den, the girls discover a suffering teddy. Mateo, dying from AIDS, becomes a boon companion and eventual benefactor, leaving an inheritance that spares his new friends from daunting hospital expenses when Sarah must undergo a perilous childbirth.

Given the magnitude of Mateo’s act of generosity, one inevitably wonders why the donor chose to live in such a ramshackle building. But why quibble when a movie is dead set on faking you out with a saint initially disguised as an ogre?

In a generous mood one might think of Johnny Sullivan as this holiday season’s George Bailey, since he requires similar charitable intervention in a time of crisis by family and friends. However, Jimmy Stewart’s George had a long history with Bedford Falls, the hometown of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Johnny remains uprooted and ineffectual to a fault. As a breadwinner, he never seems to be shouldering a man’s share of obligations.

We’re not encouraged to scorn him, really, because Sarah and the girls love him. However, since Johnny’s acting aspirations are documented only in token audition scenes, it’s impossible to get a sense of how that vocation defines or obsesses him.

Christy, who owns a camcorder, is the family’s chronicler and the movie’s narrator. Since the photogenic appeal of Samantha Morton and the Bolger sisters leaves Paddy Considine at an almost comic disadvantage, it’s difficult to regard dad as a crucial member of the family.

**

TITLE: “In America”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, sexual candor, graphic violence and allusions to drug addiction)

CREDITS: Directed by Jim Sheridan. Screenplay by Mr. Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. Cinematography by Declan Quinn. Production design by Mark Geraghty. Costume design by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh. Music by Gavin Friday.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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