B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
IN ROMANCE AS well as the movies, timing is everything. Or is it? The Perez Family, by director Mira Nair, makes a strong case for timing with its story of a husband and wife who wait 20 years to see each other, only to have their continued love finally determined by split-second chance occurrences. And yet the movie--which is, in spots, as gloppy as molasses in Antarctica--also proves the opposite: Vibrant storytelling can get by whether or not it has smooth forward momentum.
The story begins in 1980 Cuba, where Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), a prisoner of the Castro regime, is finally being released. After two decades, there's only one thing on Juan's mind: returning to his wife Carmela (Anjelica Huston), who has been waiting patiently in Miami. In tattered clothes, he boards a boat to the United States; "I must be dreaming," Juan says, looking at the vast sea around him. It's no mistake that Molina, with his sad eyes, long hair and beard, looks more than a little like Christ.
There are also traces of Mary Magdalene to Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), a nearby prostitute who has decided that America is the place for her. Radiant, voracious and utterly sexual, Dottie is the movie's "life-ist"--a symbol of the unfettered joy-seeking that Juan and Carmela have had to go without for so many years. Tomei, who put on 20 pounds of ripe flesh (and several pounds of Cuban accent) for the role, is a complete success at playing a fiery free spirit. She leaps into her part so unself-consciously that it's a miracle she doesn't take over the film.
But this is Juan's story, and his quest for his wife is where our sympathies lie. It's a long quest. Once in America, Juan, Dottie and thousands of other refugees are encamped in the Orange Bowl stadium while they await housing. The movie's title comes about because Dottie starts rounding up other people with the last name Perez, forcing them to pose as her relatives in hopes that will improve her chances. "The Perez Family" takes on two meanings--the "real" family Raul is seeking, and the makeshift one he's got in the meantime.
While Juan is preparing, emotionally as well as physically, to meet his wife again, Carmela begins suspecting he hasn't come. Devastated, she accepts her fate and starts seeking new avenues for happiness. Anjelica Huston is perfect here, conveying at first sadness, then an emerging strength. Her situation is given a comic touch when her overprotective brother (Diego Wallraff) adds an alarm system and barred windows to the house, putting her in a prison of her own. And only the local police officer (Chazz Palminteri) knows how to disable the alarm....
The question, of course, becomes: Will Juan meet up with Carmela before their hearts lead them in other directions? It's a question of timing, and the movie's whole little world appears to be conspiring against them; each time he gets closer, something gets in the way. It's quite painful.
From here, The Perez Family takes a number of turns, many of them expected, a few completely out of left field. Throughout, Mira Nair fills each frame with gobs of culture. Within a single panning shot, you might see eye-popping flower arrangements, funky knick-knacks, interesting old people's faces, wildly colorful murals, exotic dances, bizarre mannerisms. It's an attractive spectacle because it's so thoroughly coated with good will, and Nair goes to great lengths to include everybody in the mix. There's a fast-talking Indian man, a black woman who flies by on roller skates and hisses, gay priests, and even a Jewish woman who appears just long enough to mutter, "Oy!"
Nair has a few things to say about The American Dream and multiculturalism, but thankfully she mostly resists verbalizing her ideas. Her previous film, Mississippi Masala, suffered from too many such lessons and lectures, but here she becomes more playful, throwing in visual ideas and splashy little touches that add a dream-like, non-pedantic quality to the proceedings. Two of the supporting characters, for instance, are a cynical youth and a mute, child-like old man who occasionally runs around naked like Forrest Gump's crazy uncle. Whatever these two characters represent, The Perez Family proves conclusively that it's always good to have a naked old man around to help out in a pinch.
When The Perez Family does start aiming for meanings beyond its bittersweet romance plot, it's Tomei, unfortunately, who must bear most of the metaphoric weight. At the beginning of the film, she has ambitions of making love to John Wayne. Not only does she find out that John Wayne is dead, but the local John Wayne stand-in, a jock-cop who takes her to a disco wearing a cowboy-fringe jacket, treats her like a Cuban prostitute--a nothing--and she's crushed. Welcome to America.
Some of these developments are unnecessary and only serve to slow down the rest of the movie. But others add symmetry to the story, which builds two sets of characters who may or may not fall in love--leaving us wondering in which direction to root. In any case, most of the shortcomings of The Perez Family are forgivable, thanks to Nair's sparkling direction and a thoroughly attractive cast.
One final example of the movie's brilliance comes in a brief scene where a character watches a loved one show affection to someone else. The character's jaw drops, the eyes seethe with pain, and the center of the character's shirt slowly starts bleeding from within--just above the heart. The Perez Family may be sluggish in spots, but in a movie full of evocative moments like these, maybe timing isn't everything after all.
The Perez Family is playing at Catalina (881-0616) and Century Gateway (792-9000) cinemas.
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