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Bittersweet Christmas 

Review of In America

click to enlarge In America, a portrait of an Irish immigrant family.
  • In America, a portrait of an Irish immigrant family.

In America (PG-13)
Fox Searchlight

"Thousands are sailing across the western ocean, to a land of opportunity that some of them will never see.

Fortune prevailing, across the western ocean.

Their bellies full, their spirits free. They'll break the chains of poverty."

When he wasn't passed-out drunk, Pogues former frontman Shane MacGowan wrote songs that made you wanna weep the foam right off your Guinness. "Thousands are Sailing" is his anthem to the bedraggled peasants of the Irish diaspora who arrived in the New World long before the Sullivan family of Jim Sheridan's In America.

Like many famine-Irish, this family foursome sneaks into the United States through Canada by posing as vacationers. While they come seeking opportunity -- the father, Johnny (Paddy Considine) aims to make it as an actor -- they're also fleeing another demon, grief.

In his or her own way, each family member is still reeling from the loss of 5-year-old son Frankie, who died of brain cancer in Ireland after a protracted hospital stay. Both Johnny and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) blame themselves and struggle with a divisive shame, even as their new lives quickly take shape. Their daughters, Ariel and Christy (played by real-life sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger) are much more buoyant, but still subject to their parents' despair.

Since his 1988 debut with My Left Foot, Sheridan has become Ireland's pre-eminent auteur, extending the national tradition of storytelling to the screen with The Field and In the Name of the Father.

During his Dublin childhood, Sheridan lost a brother (also named Frankie), and In America serves as both a memorial and a family collaboration, as his daughter Kristen shares the writing credit. In America is loosely based on his own experience living in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen in the early 1980s, before realtors redubbed the neighborhood "Clinton."

In America is refreshing in its defiance of tired Irish-American tropes. The story is worlds away from the conservative working-class milieu of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan or the more contemporary incarnations found in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.

The Sullivans are maverick urban bohemians residing on the top floor of a tenement that should have been condemned during the LaGuardia administration. Sarah works at a diner while remaining set to see through a pregnancy despite her doctor's warnings. For his part, Johnny drives a cab while slogging through a string of stage auditions where he's passed over for failing to convey emotion. The girls attend Catholic school and take in Manhattan's sleazy splendor where drag queens and druggies play the same roles as snakes and fauna might to country kids.

There's a forced feel-good quality to In America, an attempt to serve up a slice of life a little too hard. Tugging at our heartstrings are the combined forces of the ghost of a dead child, two adorable live ones and the whole overarching (though updated) saga of the immigrant experience. As Johnny hauls a monolithic air conditioner through the sweltering streets of New York, you can practically hear the theme song from Good Times accompanied by an Irish flute.

Despite dodging many a clich, Sheridan slips into a patently American one in his noble savage portrait of the Sullivan's downstairs neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). This East Indies recluse reveals little about himself, except that he's prone to intense glaring and apoplexy. On their first Halloween, the girls annoy him into opening his door for a trick or treat. They soon find he's a gentleman, a passionate artist, and is dying of AIDS.

A friend once observed that when a black male finds his way into a Hollywood film, you can place bets on when he'll be killed off -- usually so other characters (read: white) can have an epiphany. Sadly, that's the case in Sheridan's bittersweet film. There's no disguising the fact that Mateo is less a human being than a bohemian guardian angel sent to breathe back life into the Irish family. That Sheridan couldn't come up with a more original idea (or be sensitive on the issue) isn't enough to discredit his feel-good hit of the season, but it does leave you wanting more for Christmas.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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