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America, America

The Perez Family and My Family (Mi Familia) don't glance off of you the way most movies do. Full of hardship, deprivation, bitterness and death -- yet maintaining an ultimate optimism -- they stick with you, even haunt you. The two films share a basic narrative of outsiders trying to build new, better lives in the United States. But they also share more: archetypal scenes that will be familiar to many immigrants and their descendants. The long, dangerous journey to America; a large family packed into a tiny room; temptation by greed and crime; the relentless grind of degrading, low-wage jobs; and the defiantly humorous ways people find to make those jobs bearable.

Most of all, the movies share a melancholy, accepting quality -- one borne of a precarious balance between disappointment and hope, regret and contentment. The characters of The Perez Family and My Family are intimately familiar with the sadness and horror America can inflict, yet they accept such things as the price of a new beginning -- a duty levied in the form of heartache. They know they will persevere, and that, God willing, each successive generation will endure less and achieve more.

As Dottie Perez, a young Cuban immigrant in The Perez Family, Marisa Tomei is hunger incarnate. She revels in new experiences so intensely that at times she seems to literally absorb them through her pores.

When the small vessel that bears her and her fellow immigrants to Miami during the 1980 Mariel boatlift is stopped a few hundred yards from the harbor for a routine Coast Guard boarding, she's so full of adrenaline that she dives into the waves, swims all the way to shore, then kneels in the shallows, cups her hands and splashes herself with water from her new home's shoreline.

Watching her wriggle, flirt and dance her way through her new life in Miami, fantasizing about all the men she can have and all the things she could buy (if only she had the money), you can't help thinking that Dottie is going to fit in just fine here. On arrival, she's free of encumbrances. But she's forced to develop new ones at the behest of the INS, which will deport anyone who isn't claimed by an already established immigrant family. So in short order Dottie hooks up with a 13-year-old "son" named Felipe (Jose Felipe Padron) and a "grandfather" named Armando (Lazaro Perez), who's so mysteriously shell-shocked that he keeps shedding his clothes and climbing naked into the highest boughs of tall trees expecting to see Cuba in the distance.

Dottie gains a "husband," Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), who she met on the boat. For his part, Juan has come to America to search for his wife, Carmela Perez (Anjelica Huston), who was separated from him 20 years ago when he became a political prisoner.

Unfortunately for Juan, Carmela has become a different person while waiting for word of his fate. She got a good job at Saks Fifth Avenue, and her memory of her imprisoned spouse has become idealized, even a bit abstract. Now, after many years of celibacy, she finds herself attracted to a divorced Italian-American cop (Chazz Palminteri).

Boil away all the plots, subplots and sub-subplots in The Perez Family and what you're left with is a comedy, and a romantic comedy at that. The picture's central component is a farcical romantic triangle. Dottie and Juan are forced by circumstance to live together in the basement of a Catholic church, and while Juan pines for his real wife, Dottie gets involved with a freewheeling Anglo man she believes is sophisticated and rich, but who's really just a possessive lout who parties beyond his means. It's obvious that Dottie and Juan will eventually have to let go of their illusions and realize they're destined to be together, and that Carmela will finally break down and admit that her brash, new love holds more promise than her old, faded one.

For the Perezes, it's the journey that matters, and the same is true of the movie's plot; a film like The Perez Family sinks or swims on the strength of its performances and its mood. Director Mira Nair and screenwriter Robin Swicord keep a slight distance from their characters, which gives the picture a ragged, anecdotal and reassuring tone that keeps undercutting sentiment with earthy jokes and reminding you that this immigrant tale is merely one among millions. Swicord, who wrote last year's Little Women, has a lush, neatly ordered, old-movie storytelling sensibility, while Nair, who established herself as a premier cinematic chronicler of immigrant stories with Mississippi Masala, favors a more quirky, ironic tone.

The two approaches complement each other. The film takes its situations seriously and never condescends to any of its characters, even when they're venal or buffoonish. But at the same time, it manages to develop (and sustain) the colorful, whirling, lighter-than-air feel of a picaresque fable. The film has a lovely porous texture that allows the actors to develop moments of genuine pathos and anger within slapstick scenes.

When Juan, Dottie and Armando sell flowers on a street corner, the indignity of their predicament gives way to playfulness when we see how Dottie approaches the job -- by literally dancing her way to profit, wiggling her hips and curling her mouth into a grin that's both ecstatic and pouty, amusing female drivers and driving males into a dizzy trance.

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