Seminal Vehicle

Audiences are incredibly tolerant when it comes to romantic comedies. Inane dialogue, contrived plots, transparent sentimentality A all is forgiven if the filmmaker is able to create the illusion of even the remotest strain of chemistry between the principals. That goes double for movies that revolve around the matchmaking of that Hollywood staple, the Unlikely Couple. Take Pretty Woman, for example A a beautiful streetwalker (!) with a heart of gold (!!) and no substance-abuse problem (!!!) falls in love with a handsome corporate raider (!!!!) who owns a great car he can't even drive. They suffer the usual artificial conflicts, but end up driving off into the sunset together as the credits roll. Audiences lapped it up; Pretty Woman was one of the top-grossing (it seems only fitting to use dollars and cents to measure the success of a movie about creatures as cynical and mercenary as these) romantic comedies of all time.

Which is why, despite the fact that Made in America is predictable, simple-minded drool, it will be a big hit, maybe even the vaunted Sleeper Hit of the Summer. For all the movie's shortcomings, the coupling of Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg works. They take Hollywood-silly, one-dimensional roles and imbue them with depth and likability. And, with all due respect to Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, there aren't too many couples less likely than Ted and Whoopi. That the two became a real-life item during the making of the film only ups the ante. In the old days movie studios paid big money to manufacture publicity like the scandal rags' front page coverage of the Danson-Goldberg off-screen union and the dissolution of the erstwhile TV sitcom star's marriage because of it.

In case you've recently emerged from a twelve-year coma and were among the three people in the Western Hemisphere who didn't watch the final episode of Cheers, Danson played Sam Malone, a swinging bachelor who owned his own business A a bar populated with colorful, eccentric characters. Sam fell in love with Diane, a feisty woman far more learned than he. Opposites attracted. In Made in America Danson plays Hal Jackson, a swinging bachelor who owns his own business A a truck dealership populated with colorful, eccentric characters. Jackson falls in love with Sarah Mathews, a feisty woman far more learned than he. Opposites attract.

This being a motion picture, however, there's an additional gimmick: Sarah is black. Ironically (as it's probably the most interesting aspect of the whole silly proceeding), the ebony-ivory thing was not in the original script, but when Goldberg signed on, well, there it was. As is often the case in this collaborative medium, a twist that didn't even exist in the first draft of the screenplay became the finished film's punch line. ("At the sperm bank, she asked for a tall, intelligent black man. One out of three ain't bad.")

The interracial angle is an afterthought, and it shows. Will Smith's character Tea Cake, for example, is completely extraneous and spends most of his time mugging, because the writers have given him nothing to do. And while the leading man and woman are engaging, the transition from mutual enmity to wooing and cooing is way too slick to stand up under scrutiny.

Luckily, the lanky Danson displays a real flair for both physical and character-driven gags, and the eyebrowless comedienne is her iconoclastic self. Together they make an otherwise pedestrian tale of mistaken identity at the semen depository into something more than the sum of its parts.

Goldberg's Sarah Mathews owns a thriving African-American bookstore and is justifiably proud of Zora, her beautiful, college-bound teenage daughter. Zora discovers that she has a rare blood type that means that her mother's deceased husband could not have been Zora's biological father. (Surely every high schooler these days knows his or her parents' blood types.)

Daughter confronts mother and finds out that, indeed, after hubby's untimely death, mommy went the artificial insemination route. "I asked for the best they had," explains mom. "Smart, black."

Determined to discover the identity of her real papa, Zora cons her way into the local sperm bank (like there's one on every corner). She signs up childhood pal Tea Cake to make a "deposit" while she surreptitiously scans the bank's database. None of it is made to seem the least bit plausible, but at least Smith gets in one or two funny lines before director Richard Benjamin yields to the cum-in-a-cup jokes.

The computer fingers Jackson, one of those loud, cartoonish car dealers who rides elephants and wrestles bears in his TV commercials. No surprises here -- Jackson is Sam Malone with a new day gig. While Danson reveals an unexpected knack for slapstick and enjoys a few genuinely funny moments with the ornery critters, the film doesn't hit its stride until the first confrontation between while car salesman and black bookstore owner over "their" daughter.

From that point on it's all Danson and Goldberg. They argue, they fall in love, they weather a crisis, they split up, they get back together for the big, happy ending. Precious little of it makes any sense, but that's beside the point.

Don't let them fool you. The wacky sperm bank premise may be rooted in modern biology, but it's old-fashioned chemistry that saves Made in America.

 
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