'Made in America' has all good players but only a few good laughs

MOVIES

May 28, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Made in America"

Starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson

Directed by Richard Benjamin

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13

** 1/2

"Made in America" was made in Hollywood, and it shows.

The movie is about an interracial love affair between Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg who meet cute when it appears that his sperm may have artificially inseminated her years back, giving -- her daughter an unwelcome Caucasian streak; it is alternatingly grating, loud, insipid and occasionally hilarious.

To give the film the guise of topicality, the two lovers are conceived almost as the Beatrice and Benedick of America's racial tragedy. Goldberg's Sarah Mathews is totally Afrocentric in her viewpoint, having very little use for pale-skinned folk; on the other hand, Danson's Hal Jackson is idiot-centric, living a sybarite's fantasy of pleasure while possessing the inner life and self-awareness of the average aquarium snail. She runs a black culture shop in Berkeley; he runs a truck dealership and makes moronic commercials in which he talks to chimps. Its one great mystery is how such disparate humans could have produced such a wondrous piece of work as Zora (Nia Long), the daughter, an honor student of uncompromising decency who is on her way to M.I.T. But then that's the mystery of life itself.

Basically, when the movie isn't trying too hard it's at its best. Danson and Goldberg have a well-publicized offscreen relationship which interests me not a nickle's worth, but it's clear from the Technicolor evidence that they have a kind of electricity between them which a camera is only too happy to record. One of the minor mysteries of movies is how some couplings click and others -- Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith in "Born Yesterday," for example -- are as dead as the fossil record; but Danson and Goldberg are so relaxed and confident in each other's presence that their scenes together generate a pleasure the flimsy vehicle that supports them hardly deserves.

Far too frequently, however, director Richard Benjamin indulges in the coarsest and most desperate kind of laugh-getting mechanics. He seems to love the theme of the out-of-control vehicle, taking us alternatingly through a series of wacky runaway sequences involving trucks, cars and even elephants, all of which involve minor amounts of destruction to no good purpose except punching out a script that boasts about 45 minutes worth of dialogue into an hour and a half worth of movie.

The performers are uniformly better than the material, although David Bowe plays a gay black sales clerk in Goldberg's Africa-themed shop so stereotypically swishy and bitchy that it's nearly offensive. But Will Smith, as Zora's best friend, is very funny, as are the stars.

The movie, alas, is all too timid for its own good. It never really faces the racial rage that lies at its own heart, but prefers to wish it away. It seems to suggest that such ancient animosities can be healed without acknowledgment, on the basis of the most sentimental of emotions: If we only love each other, then the world will be wonderful. It suggests that brotherhood and racial forgiveness is a piece of cake. Would that it were but so.

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