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Not Much to Like

Late in I Like It Like That, a smalltime ex-con shares a cup of ice cream with two of his children. It's the Bronx; they're on a stoop across the street from a mural memorializing a police officer slain in the line of duty by drug dealers. Nearby, hanging out with friends, is another of the ex-con's children, and when the ex-con notices the boy is decked out in new duds and licking his own ice cream cone, he storms over to the eight-year-old, pegs him as a drug dealer, throws him face first onto a ratty sofa that has been conveniently abandoned right in front of the mural, pulls down his son's pants, pulls out his own belt and begins to give his child a whipping.

A crowd develops, and amid the din, the ex-con hears mocking laughter from his son's prepubescent drug associates. He grabs one, intending to put him across his knee as well. The boy draws a gun. To disarm him, the ex-con shoves him against the mural -- just under a spot where someone has taped a yellowing newspaper article that reveals the felled officer was the ex-con's brother -- and then proceeds to reprimand him. The boy wails, "You ain't my father!" The ex-con wails, too. Talk about heavy-handed moviemaking!

And the ex-con isn't even the film's point-of-view character. That honor goes to his wife, and though I Like It Like That writer/director Darnell Martin may deserve some kudos for being the first African-American woman to make a film for a major studio, her choice of the narrative character makes it painfully apparent that in this coming-of-age story she was suffering her own growing pains. I Like It Like That's heroine goes through every emotional, sexual and economic trick in the cinematic book, from enduring her husband's macho immaturities to discovering her own sense of worth. Even her being half black/half Latino lends more a hackneyed spin on race-relations than an interesting personal trait.

Lisette (Lauren Velez) finds her role as wife and mother upended when husband Chino (Jon Seda), a misguided bicycle messenger, is sent to jail for stealing a stereo -- meant as a gift for Lisette -- during a neighborhood blackout. His idea of how to make bail is to have Lisette play the numbers. In the meantime, he orders, go on welfare. But Lisette decides instead to get a job. Miraculously, Lisette finds work assisting a Tums-popping record executive named Price (Griffin Dunne).

Meanwhile, Chino's homeboys visit him in jail to tell him that Lisette is having an affair with Price. She must be, they say, because he drove her home at 4 a.m. in his red Lamborghini. When Chino gets out, he's in a funk that lands him in the arms of Magdalena (Lisa Vidal), a vixen who dangles her body at him so that her illegitimate baby might have a father. As soon as Lisette finds out about Chino's philandering, she retaliates by sleeping with Price. Whether or not Lisette and Chino will make up is as obvious as how Lisette's distanced parents feel about her goodhearted transvestite brother Alexis (Jesse Borrego).

Occasionally, as when Lisette can't discipline her wayward son because, as he informs her, Chino was wearing the belt when he got arrested, I Like It Like That's dramatic moments ring true. But most of the film feels overly familiar. Though the leads convincingly convey their characters' callowness and yearnings, scenes go on too long, emotions are milked and the camera work is frequently marred by artsy, film-school tricks.

In the opening scene, Chino has riotous sex with Lisette for, we're told, 89 minutes. The film's staying power isn't nearly as potent.

I Like It Like That.
Directed by Darnell Martin. With Lauren Velez and Jon Seda.
Rated R.
94 minutes.

 
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