In America falls into a class of movies I often have a hard time refining my opinion about. These films are usually termed "tearjerkers," but that word is vague -- certain tearjerkers do their job by presenting tragedy, others do it through triumph. The tragedies work less on me, so I must be a triumph kind of guy. When good things happen to good people, when hard work pays off, when faith and love and everything that comes with them are rewarded, that's when I start wiping my eyes with my sleeve.
My problem with many of these movies is that I'm all too aware they work so well on me, even if they're done in generally the same way each time. The tricks are well-established -- use a poignant storyline about overcoming impossible odds, throw in good bits of emotional character interaction, and cue the music during those killer moments. Next thing you know, I feel like a faucet. It undoubtedly works, but the whole thing is still being run from one template, one game plan. I start feeling easily manipulated when I just watch a bunch of different flavors of essentially the same movie.
Naturally, I like seeing movies that are different and new, so I'm always happy to give credit to those, but what about these triumphant tearjerkers? They're not new, but they always get to me -- does that make them great movies? Or is my cynic's immunity system that easy to disarm? Or... or... should I just give credit to the makers of these films for doing a good job? In other words, is it my weakness or their strength?
I need to step back and get a better look at the situation. First, I should recognize that no fight really exists here. These movies often have positive things to say about the human will and spirit. I never think there's anything wrong with communicating such a message. Second, I must see that often the skill of the effective storyteller lies with his or her ability to make the emotions connected with the story distinct from the plot mechanics. After all, the tears come not from the actual triumph or the victory -- they come from the emotions associated with investing so much thought and heart in any kind of human dilemma. It doesn't even have to be a dilemma -- emotions can be invested into friendships, for example. So, I guess for me, what works is evidence of the human capacity to care. I also seem to take well to examples of people making emotional progress, to move forward rather than to regret and look back.
I'm glad I thought about this -- it seems to make sense to me. I understand better why movies like Cinema Paradiso, The Green Mile, and Seabiscuit worked on me the way they did. To this list I can now add In America, perhaps one of the best recent examples of a triumphant tearjerker. It benefits from having a more gritty feel than the other movies I listed -- realism is afforded to it by a Manhattan setting that's less romanticized, more challenging. The Irish immigrants who start a new life there aren't surrounded by friendliness, but they find it where they can while facing their own personal dilemma.
Helping matters is the way director Jim Sheridan based the movie on his own personal experiences. This tends to offset the feeling that much of the environment and many of the elements in the movie could be manufactured -- Manhattan tends to look more threatening than it actually turns out to be, and Djimon Hounsou's character feels a little too conveniently written. There's also a feeling of displacement when the movie utilizes E.T. as thematic enforcement -- the movie doesn't feel like it's set in the '80s (especially when the white rapper gets in the taxi and starts rapping in a current style). Maybe the family was watching Steven Spielberg's recent re-release? But that wouldn't explain the popularity of the E.T. dolls.
Nevertheless, these are all mere sidelines to In America's emotional core. I have little doubt about the emotions Sheridan conveys through his characters being the ones he and his family became familiar with. He does the right thing in bringing those feelings to the forefront, making them identifiable, overshadowing plot weaknesses -- he's got that skill. And he couldn't have involved a better cast in telling his story -- Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, and real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger are utterly convincing as a family. Theirs is a journey of joy, pain, and, mostly, hope. After watching everything they go through in the movie, I was reduced to a blubbering mass. I am a sucker for these kinds of movies. But if the underlying emotions can connect with me, I'll gladly be suckered anytime.
(Released by Fox Searchlight and rated "PG-13" for some sexuality, drug references, brief violence and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.