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Made in America
It might suffer from one of those hacky 90s romcom stories, and the way it approaches race relations in America might be borderline embarrassing over twenty years after its release, but Made in America is still a charming and heartfelt little dramedy that draws pretty much all of its goodwill from a strong cast and the two leads sharing a kind of chemistry that comes once in a lifetime.
The premise is pure sitcom fodder: After a precautious black teenager named Zora (Nia Long) finds out that she's the result of a sperm donation instead of the biological child of her dead father, she tracks down the donor she thinks is a smart black man, only to end up with Hal (Ted Danson), a goofy car salesman who's also very, very white. While Zora attempts to build a relationship with this man she feels absolutely no cultural connection to, a relationship begins to develop between Ted and Zora's headstrong mother, Sarah (Whoopi Goldberg).
There might have been an opportunity here to deal with 90s race relations in a humorous yet levelheaded way. But director Richard Benjamin and screenwriter Holly Goldberg Sloan shoot themselves in the foot by setting up Sarah and Hal as the most extreme stereotypes of their particular races as possible. Hal is a cowboy wannabe who drives pick-up trucks and refers to going to the bathroom as "Draining the lizard". Sarah, on the other hand, is a black power type who owns a store that sells African artifacts. On pure narrative terms, it would be hard to find nuance in a setup this hackneyed. Most of the lazy humor in the film derives from Hal and Sarah being unable to understand each other's slang.
What really saves the film's glaring shortcomings is the organic chemistry between Danson and Goldberg, who were in a well-publicized relationship at the time. As the romance between the characters blossoms, the natural connection between the two actors becomes undeniable. And as this comedy swings towards drama during its second half, Danson and Goldberg find some depth in these one-dimensional characters.
Will Smith, who plays Zora's friend-zoned BFF Tea Cake, proves himself as the MVP of the piece with a showy but hilarious performance. 1993 was an important year for Smith as far as his switch from TV to movies was concerned. He proved that he could handle drama with his impressive performance in Six Degrees of Separation, and he showed the world that he was great at movie comedies with Made in America.
When I looked at the back of the DVD case and read that the aspect ratio was 1:33:1, I almost had a minor heart attack. A pan and scan DVD in this day and age!? Thankfully, this DVD sports the 1:85:1 original aspect ratio of the film, and in an anamorphic transfer no less! Unfortunately, that's the end of the good news, since this DVD transfer suffers from a fairly low bit rate, and multiple video noise issues like aliasing, not to mention occasional scratches and dirt. That being said, it's the best version of this film you'll find on home video.
The lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is perfect for TV speakers, as it offers a fairly subtle comedy mix. The track comes to life when the African-inspired score kicks in. The biggest problem is that no subtitles are offered, not even for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Absolutely nothing. In fact, the DVD doesn't even have regular chapter selections. It's just split into 10-minute sections.
Made in America is too broad for today's audiences to identify with, especially when it comes to race issues, but if you stick with it, it gives you a decent dramedy with impressive performances.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com