Made in America (1993)
“At the sperm-bank she asked for a tall, intelligent, black man. One out of three ain’t bad.”
Made in America (1993)
Director: Richard Benjamin
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Will Smith
Synopsis: A young black woman discovers that her father was a sperm donor, and if that weren’t bad enough, he’s white.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, former actor Richard Benjamin carved a small niche for himself as a director of lightweight comedies that were resolutely inoffensive even when flirting with a potentially touchy subject (for the early ’90s) like the multi-racial relationship in Made in America. With hindsight, we can now see that adhering to such a formula was destined to last about as long as the flavour in chewing gum, so it’s no surprise that Benjamin ended up directing mainly TV movies. Made in America is a pleasant enough comedy, but it’s a little too sensitive about the potential pitfalls surrounding its subject (just imagine if key roles – or, rather, skin tones – had been reversed…) to risk going for the kind of edgier laughs that should be arising from the situations depicted.
Back in 1993, Ted Danson (Saving Private Ryan) was trying to establish a movie career following the end of his eleven-year tenure as Sam Malone on Cheers, but his age, and a poor choice of parts, like that of cowboy car salesman Hal Jackson in Made in America, more or less ensured he would find greater success in TV. It’s not difficult to see why he got the part. Jackson’s nothing more than a thin variation on Malone, a likeable but rather dim urban cowboy in blue jeans and white stetson hat and with the same carefully blow-dried big hair. Jackson appears to enjoy an enviable lifestyle thanks to the success of his car dealership, which he promotes through a series of local TV ads in which he appears with a variety of exotic animals, but he seems bewildered by the energy of his ditzy trophy girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly), and the amount of alcohol he consumes suggests there’s something missing from his life.
That gap is filled when young Zora Mathews (Nia Long) accidentally discovers that she’s not the product of the relationship between her mother, Sarah (Whooping Goldberg – The Lion King, Toy Story 3) and the man she thought was her late father, but of Sarah’s visit to a sperm bank, during which she had requested that the substance of her impregnation come from someone black, smart and not too tall. Imagine Zora’s shock, then, when she discovers that her real father is tall, white, and not-too-bright Hal. Sarah is none too pleased either, and when she hears about Hal’s inept attempt to gently dissuade Zora from pursuing the matter further – “I’ve got nothing to offer you except a deal on a used truck,” he apologetically explained – she marches down to his dealership to give him a piece of her mind. Naturally, this marks the beginning of a rather tortuous journey towards a relationship which, to be honest, doesn’t ring true for one minute.
Danson and Goldberg embarked on a real-life affair while filming Made in America, so the lack of on-screen chemistry between them here is something of a surprise. But then their romance was short-lived, even by Hollywood standards, so perhaps it’s not so surprising after all. The thing is, when a romantic comedy wishes to bring together two mismatched people who have nothing in common, it must rely on their magnetic personalities alone to convince us that, yeah, these two really would see something worthwhile in one another. But at the film’s beginning, Hal is a likeable but dim-witted good ol’ boy incapable of deep thought, and Sarah is a grouchy, uptight Afro-American bookstore owner who has the patience of a bulldog with toothache. These two wouldn’t look twice at one another if they were shipwrecked on a desert island with nothing but a double bed and a copy of the Kama Sutra, so in order to bring them together, the screenwriting team of Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff and Holly Goldberg-Sloan have to moderate the characters so significantly that, by the end of the film they are unrecognisable from the people they were at its beginning. You could argue that their experiences have changed them, but I don’t know – it feels like narrative contrivance to me.
Despite this problematic lack of chemistry between Danson and Goldberg, the cast is likeable enough and makes much of the lightweight material. The three principal characters are supported by a young Will Smith (Where the Day Takes You, Six Degrees of Separation) as Tea Cake Walters, Zora’s lovelorn friend whose ‘wacky’ name tells you all you need to know about him. Smith was becoming increasingly popular back then thanks to the success of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the superfluity of his character suggests that the part was either written specifically for him or was considerably beefed up once he was cast. Whatever the reason, Smith’s natural, easy-going delivery provides the movie with its biggest laughs, and nondescript lines like “Yo! There’s a white man at the door!” become laughter-bombs when launched from his mouth.
Made in America is an amiable enough diversion, but would have been far more engaging had it possessed the nerve to direct its humour at the pressures and pitfalls of entering into a multi-racial relationship, and the pre-conceived, and often mistaken, notions each colour possesses about one-another.
(Reviewed 7th March 2016)
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