B Y Z A C H A R Y W O O D R U F F
My Family IS the type of movie that plays out better in one's memory than in the actual theater. A bountiful melodrama covering 50 years of a Mexican family's life in East Los Angeles, the story has important things to say about Hispanic-American history, cultural evolution and assimilation, the unending fight to hold on to values and traditions, and much more. But the entire picture is swathed in an unrelenting sentimentality that often waters down its effectiveness.
A colorful, epic-scale production, My Family is the latest effort from director Gregory Nava and Producer Anna Thomas, the writing-filmmaking team who brought us the independently made El Norte. That film, with its unflinching portrait of two Guatemalans who endure incredible hardship to reach Los Angeles, only to discover that their struggles are only beginning, was one of the most powerful films of 1983. (Who can forget the terror of the scene when the duo find themselves crawling through a half-mile tunnel full of rats?) This time, with a much larger budget at their disposal, Nava and Thomas have opted for a more storybook, soft-focus approach, where even the darkest moments feel sanitized.
Not that the movie's tone shouldn't be somewhat sentimental. After all, this is a tale about family, told from the perspective of one of its members, Paco (with a narrative voice provided by Edward James Olmos). Paco's fond commentary is most welcome during the opening scenes, when the family's parents are introduced. In whimsical, almost magical-realist terms, we learn that the father, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), spent a year strolling to Los Angeles during the late '20s ("Those days, the border was just a line in the dirt," Paco explains warmly.) In a scenario eerily reminiscent of El Norte, Jose's marriage to Maria (Jennifer Lopez), a local maid, was almost cut short when U.S. officials placed Maria and several hundred other Hispanics on a train bound for Central America. It took her two years to return. "All these things really happened," Paco says, as if anticipating a young audience's disbelief.
But Paco's narration soon becomes part of the film's larger weakness. Not only does My Family begin telling us things we already know (at a key dramatic moment, Maria sees a symbolic owl and actually says, "An owl? In daytime?" to herself), the movie also starts telling us sweet lies. During My Family's second segment, set during the '50s, we are introduced to Chucho, a Sanchez son who runs drugs, leads a gang and has a great personality. When Chucho kills an enemy during a knife fight at a sock-hop, the murder is presented as a sad accident. But when a pursuing cop shoots Chucho, he might as well be the devil incarnate: "We got him! Woo wee!" the cop can be heard shouting, just before beating the crying father with his baton.
What's the point in presenting Chucho, who is obviously supposed to represent a soul fallen from grace because he rejected his parents' values, as guilt-free? This only softens the message, and the disparity between his portrayal and the cop's leaves the viewer with the bitter aftertaste of reverse racism.
My Family partially makes up for this misstep during its third and final segment, set during the '80s. The film allows that whites have made progress in a brief scene showing a WASPy woman (Mary Steenburgen) defending her El Salvadoran housekeeper's right to pursue as much happiness as anybody else. And the purpose of the film's previous two sections becomes clear as the narrative shifts its focus to Jimmy (Jimmy Smits), the youngest son, whose bad attitude has left him an ex-con with an uncertain future. Jimmy's internal battle becomes the third part of a triptych that began with Jose (a committed family man and worker) and then moved to Chucho (a drug dealer who has absorbed too much American greed). Though Jimmy's eventual place in the movie's triptych amounts to little more than a reaffirmation of family values and tradition, Smits' charismatic performance gives it surprising weight.
On reflection, the clever construction of My Family makes for exquisite storytelling. The film leaves you with a wonderful sense of Mexican-American family history, and provides plenty of small details to remember it by (my personal favorite: a scene when the mother, now middle-aged, becomes hysterically emotional over the plot of one of those Telemundo soap operas). But as entertainment, the picture often falls short. Characters repeatedly come and go for no other reason than that that's what people in families tend to do, and the viewing experience is not unlike listening to someone paging through the random events of his photo album. Most damaging, the filmmakers' overzealous sentimentalism never subsides. (The fact that the house where most of the action takes place is surrounded by corn becomes all too appropriate.) My Family has a lot going for it, but if they'd taken away some of that corn it wouldn't have hurt.
My Family is playing at Century Park (620-0750) and El Dorado (745-6241) cinemas.
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