In director Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical In America, a poor Irish family slips across the Canadian border into the United States, heading for that prosperous life in New York. As their beater station wagon descends into the Lincoln Tunnel, the radio station fades and the faces of the four family members go yellow in the tunnel lights. "We had to go underwater to get to the city," says our precocious young narrator Christy (Sarah Bolger). The radio signal clears just long enough for us to hear tell of UFOs--subtly hinting at these travelers' alien status and at Manhattan's immigrant-rich history. The film holds its breath: A magical journey has begun, into a mythic place rife with seriously slippery energy. Then the radio static gives way to a bouncy '60s pop tune. Everyone grins and sings along; Mom, Dad, and their two girls wave their arms out the windows as they emerge into the neon of Times Square. "Do you believe in magic, in a young girl's heart?" Yuck.
For a film that ostensibly celebrates the magic of everyday reality, In America pushes much too hard; Sheridan (My Left Foot) can't help sprinkling on the fairy dust. When Dad (Paddy Considine), a wannabe actor, begins losing the rent money to a carnival sharpie, Christy's silent wish wins the prize. (As Sheridan has noted: "I really did lose a lot of money.") A baby must be conceived amid a lightning storm, an artist's creative tantrum, and supernaturally non-diminishing ice cream sundaes for Christy and her sister Ariel (Emma Bolger). It's not enough that the artist (Djimon Hounsou), a black neighbor in the family's crumbling building, befriends the family: He has to be rejected by his own family, to be dying of AIDS, and to be filled with selfless sorcery. (Black people in this movie have nothing better to do than to sacrifice themselves for the Irish--yet Christy doesn't consider helping the artist with her seemingly powerful wishes.) The UFO/alien metaphor is revisited ad nauseam. Finally, and most incredibly, the family's broken-roofed, pigeon-infested apartment is transformed with a couple of cans of paint! Nary a cockroach in sight! (And did bargain Manhattan apartments ever coexist with digital camcorders?)
In America does fashion some sparkling moments: Bolger reveals Christy's strength--how she's caretaking everybody even while nursing a deep ache around her little brother's death from cancer in Ireland. When Christy eventually discovers her anger, it's quick and hot. Bolger even rescues the Eagles' "Desperado" from empty nostalgia; if only Sheridan hadn't intercut her bittersweet performance with heavy-handed shots of desperado Dad, so numb about his son that he can't buy an acting job. Samantha Morton, as mother Sarah, hallucinates persuasively after the new baby's birth. (Morton is fairly MIA in a role built less around character than expediency; written by Sheridan and his two daughters, the movie may as well be called In the Shame of the Father.) Cinematographer Declan Quinn gets some quirky shots of New York under snow. Hounsou turns from rage to kind dignity on a dime (as if Sheridan were glad to get the former out of the way).
Otherwise, In America feels curiously mundane. Sheridan has said that he changed some of his family's inspiring experiences for the movie because they were too unbelievable (e.g., nurses deliberately crashing a computer so that hospital bills were lost). He has replaced those intense specifics with blurry magic realism and fuzzy composite characters, smoothing the edges off what makes real life magical. In the process, he ends up with a story we've seen before--complete with cute-child quips and stroke-before-midnight redemption. Sheridan is left referencing other "magical" movie moments, as if a little of their heart-light will reflect on his. Perhaps that's what one learns to do these days in America.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.