It probably won't do any good to preface this review with a disclaimer, but here goes: I wanted to like The Perez Family. I really did.
May has been a sad month for movies about Latin Americans with the word family in the title. Last week I panned director Gregory Nava's My Family; the talented Nava presumed to tell us something new about the Mexican-American experience and succeeded only in revisiting every Chicano movie cliche of the past twenty years. Now comes Mira Nair, another gifted filmmaker, who, in a case of directorial hubris even worse than Nava's (at least UCLA film school alumnus Nava is part Mexican; Nair hails from India), uses the Mariel boatlift as a vessel for exploring Cuban-American culture clash and assimilation. Unfortunately, the craft Nair builds to navigate these treacherous waters proves less seaworthy than your average balsa.
While the lead actors, none of whom is Cuban, share both Nair's love for her characters and her fondness for Cuban culture, they shed as much light on what it's like to be Cuban-American as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air shines on life in the inner city. Marisa Tomei plays Dottie Perez, an irrepressible cane cutter and nymphomaniac who wants to escape the repression of Castro's Cuba and travel to America so she can listen to rock and roll music and "fuck John Wayne." How can you argue with a lofty goal like that? (It's 1980, but nobody has informed her the Duke died a year earlier.) Tomei's faux-Cuban accent is too easy a target for this critic; let's just say her Dottie sounds about as authentically Cuban as Al Pacino's Tony Montana. Of greater concern is Tomei's acting, which varies wildly from topnotch to shamelessly over the top. To be fair to Tomei, on balance it's a winning performance punctuated by a few fatuous moments that could be chalked up to seeing too many Iris Chacon movies.
Dottie's judicious flirting and dispensing of sexual favors land her on a crowded boat setting sail from Mariel to Key West. Despite the rigors of the long voyage and her fellow passengers' mixed emotions about leaving home for an uncertain future in the U.S., the little spitfire soon has her fellow freedom floaters dancing as if they didn't have a care in the world. For some unfathomable reason, Dottie takes a particular interest in perhaps the least attractive man on the boat, Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), a soulful ex-political prisoner who hasn't seen his wife, Carmela, in twenty years. Juan Raul is an intellectual idealist from an aristocratic background who went to jail for torching his family's crops rather than allow them to fall into Castro's hands. The only thing he has in common with Dottie is the same last name. This being a movie, that coincidence means they will fall in love.
At her comfortable home in Coral Gables, saintly Carmela (Anjelica Huston, constantly touching herself to remind the audience that Sra. Perez hasn't made love to a man in twenty years) anxiously awaits word of Juan Raul's arrival. Carmela's big shot wanna-be brother, Angel, has paid off Cuban officials to spring her husband from prison and get him onto a boat to America. But a funny thing happens on the way to freedom. A beleaguered INS official mistakenly lists the disembarking Dottie Perez and Juan Raul Perez as husband and wife, then packs them off to await further processing at the Orange Bowl. When Angel arrives looking for a single man named Perez, he is told that none has arrived. The film easily could have wrung bigtime laughs and tears out of the federal government's ineffectual handling of the entire Mariel boatlift here, but director Nair plays the situation strictly for bathos and blows a golden opportunity.
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The story lurches messily yet predictably forward. Juan Raul gets lost in the bureaucratic paperwork shuffle. Angel goes looking for him but doesn't recognize the scruffy, hollow-cheeked Marielito he remembers as being a nattily dressed, clean-shaven gentleman. (It boggles the mind to consider what a director such as Lina Wertmller could have done with the sociopolitical potential of this material, and how easily Nair glosses right over it.) After twenty years locked away in a cell chanting Carmela's name, Juan Raul suddenly gives up hope that she will find him. He conveniently falls in love with Dottie, the puta who brushed against his crotch on the boat to Cayo Hueso. At the same time, Carmela inexplicably accepts her dimwitted brother's belief that Juan Raul must not have made it out of Havana. She suddenly finds herself attracted to an attentive cop (Chazz Palminteri). Neither of these new romances is convincing; both feel more like dramatic contrivances than the stuff of real life.
What a waste. Nair's warm wit and affection for her characters permeate every frame. She pulls off some funny running gags: overprotective Angel's mushrooming obsession with his sister's home security, and Dottie's transparent attempts to assemble a "family" out of other detained refugees named Perez in hopes of finding an American sponsor more quickly. And then there's the shot of a kid pinned to a clothesline with laundry, or the old men on Calle Ocho sipping coladas and talking about how much better everything was in Cuba. The Perez Family feels like a love affair between two people who are just wrong for each other; there are lots of good times but you know pretty early on it isn't going to work out.
Nair wastes a lot of screen time on irrelevant subplots. The youngest member of Dottie's newly acquired extended family is a juvenile delinquent who runs afoul of a murderous thug, and Dottie's passion for John Wayne transmutes into a romantic interlude with a studly blond security guard. Gone are the deft character development and eye for fresh, evocative detail Nair showed in Salaam Bombay! Instead we get manufactured flapdoodle like a shot of a prepubescent girl made up like a whore dancing atop a washing machine in a coin laundromat. It's a blatantly artificial scene designed to hit audiences over the head with the inherent sensuality of Cuban culture. Subtlety? Nair directs as if she has never heard of the concept. Dottie's security guard bohunk doesn't just botch their first date, he offers her money for sex at the end of the night.
Sipping cafe cubano outside a bodega and falling in love with some simplistic, over-romanticized view of Cuban culture does not qualify a person to direct a film about the Cuban-American experience, any more than hiring Celia Cruz to play a bit part buys your movie credibility. From Cuba to Scarface to Havana to The Mambo Kings, that appears to be a lesson that filmmakers just don't get. Add The Perez Family to that list.