Wednesday May 3, 1995
Your head may insist you resist the unashamed sentimentality of "My Family," but your heart will encourage you to give in, and for once your heart will be right. Old-fashioned and proud of it, this mixture of soap opera and folk opera envelopes you in a warm hug of such heroic proportions that reasoned opposition is futile. Go ahead, indulge yourself. You earned it.
Co-titled "Mi Familia," this "Roots"-type examination of 60 years in the life of a Mexican American family in Los Angeles has been preceded by numerous attempts to deal with the culture of the barrio, but none of them has been this rich or this effective. Persuasively acted by what amounts to an all-star team of Latino actors and actresses, "My Family" is not perfect, but it does add an unexpected amount of spirit to the sentimental nostalgia that is its core attraction.
Given that "My Family" is made by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas (he directed and she produced their co-written script), the same husband and wife team that created "El Norte" more than a decade ago, this film's pervasive rosy glow and reliance on melodrama and big emotions is not hard to predict.
What is something of a surprise is the film's effective use of self-kidding humor, and its refusal to be sanctimonious. Unafraid to flaunt its weepy elements, "My Family" also doesn't flinch from the tough times. It has an unexpected willingness to be close to astringent when it needs to, to allow its characters to experience painful passion and anger. And in Esai Morales and especially Jimmy Smits, who gives a career remaking performance, it has actors who know how to take advantage of that opportunity.
"My Family" covers so much family territory that all its main characters are played by at least two and sometimes as many as three actors. Holding it all together is the extensive voice-over of Paco, the oldest son and an aspiring writer. Edward James Olmos, who plays Paco, does not have a great deal of screen time, but it is hard to imagine this film without his soothing narration and the Godfather-like quality of his voice.
"I have to begin where millions of stories have begun before, in a small village in Mexico," says Paco. The village is in Michoacan, where, for reasons that are amusingly unclear, teen-aged Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) departs in the mid-1920s to seek out his only living relative in "Nuestra Reina de Los Angeles," a place so impossibly far away it took him a year to get there.
Once in Los Angeles, Jose soon falls in love with and marries Maria (Jennifer Lopez). Their life together was not uneventful then and became even more tumultuous in the film's other two time periods, the 1950s and the 1980s (when the couple is equally well played by Eduardo Lopez Rojas, one of Mexico's most respected actors, and Jenny Gago).
The Sanchezes had six children, with each one having at least one story. There is Paco, as noted, the writer; Irene, the daughter with the serious appetite; Toni, the sister with a will of iron; and three more sons: Chucho, the rebellious pachuco; Memo, the homework-loving good son; and Jimmy, the cherished youngest child.
Since part of the pleasure of "My Family" is to be astonished by the soap opera plot twists the script never fails to come up with, it need only be said that everything from macho turf rivalries to heroic river-crossings to the always malevolent shadow of * La Migra , the immigration police, gets touched on here in Nava's casually mythologizing style.
One of the reasons "My Family" is successful is that the simple concept of focusing on the real family, not the substitute gang family that many previous Latino films have latched onto, is a surprisingly effective one. And both the script and direction have taken care to give the film's characters what they themselves would consider essential: simple dignity.
Though many elements, including a sonorous music and an eye-opening pastel-themed visual scheme, help "My Family," its biggest asset is its bilingual cast, which brings so much belief to their parts that it rubs off and helps convince us these people really are a family.
This conviction also adds more dimension to the characters than is necessarily on the page. Morales is appropriately passionate as the unbending Chucho, and Smits as the smoldering, exasperated loner Jimmy finally gives the kind of movie star performance that has been expected of him for years, personally invigorating the entire second half of the film.
And among the actresses, mention should be made of newcomer Constance Marie as the surprising Toni, and especially Elpidia Carrillo, whose quiet performance as the Salvadoran immigrant Isabel is in some ways the emotional heart of the picture.
As with any film that walks this close to the edge of bathos, there are moments when "My Family" stumbles and even falls. But most viewers will prefer to focus on the parts that feel effortlessly successful, like a memorable sequence when two people are observed falling in love while dancing to the music of a car radio. For times like that, almost anything can be forgiven.
My Family, 1995. R, for strong language, some graphic violence and a scene of sexuality. Francis Ford Coppola presents, in association with Majestic Films and American Playhouse Theatrical Films, an American Zoetrope-Anna Thomas-Newcomm production, released by New Line Cinema. Director Gregory Nava. Producer Anna Thomas. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Guy East, Tom Luddy. Screenplay by Gregory Nava & Anna Thomas. Cinematographer Edward Lachman. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costumes Tracy Tynan. Music Mark McKenzie. Production design Barry Robison. Design consultant Patssi Valdez. Art director Troy Myers. Set decorator Suzette Sheets. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Jimmy Smits as Jimmy. Esai Morales as Chucho. Eduardo Lopez Rojas as Jose. Jenny Gago as Maria. Elpidia Carrillo as Isabel. Constance Marie as Toni. Edward James Olmos as Paco.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times