Whoopi & Ted’s ‘America’: A Grand Ol’ Comedy


Talk about chemistry: In “Made in America” (citywide), Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson go together like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard--or Lucy and Desi. On the surface, of course, they seem like polar opposites, but they’re well-matched in their ability to move deftly from slapstick to seriousness, rage to tenderness, indomitability to vulnerability. Best of all, beyond the characters they’re playing, Goldberg and Danson seem to have the ability to take each other by surprise, constantly keeping each other on his or her mettle.

Goldberg plays the capable, successful Sarah Matthews, owner of a Berkeley bookstore devoted to African culture and a single mother to Zora (Nia Long), a pretty 17-year-old who’s an achiever with a bright future. By chance, Zora discovers from a blood-typing classroom project that Sarah’s late husband cannot have been the father she never knew. Sarah confesses that Zora was conceived via a sperm bank donation--she had specified that the donor be “smart, black, not too tall.” Zora becomes determined to find the unknown sperm donor/father.

Danson’s Hal Jackson is about the last white man either mother or daughter would want to be the donor, and they wouldn’t be much happier if Hal were black, which is naturally what they expected. Surely inspired by local fixture Cal Worthington, Jackson is the San Francisco Bay Area’s gaudiest, hardest-selling car dealer, constantly on view in commercials wearing glitzy cowboy attire and teamed up with one exotic animal after another. Hal exudes a crass, calculated folksy quality in his commercials that is a turnoff to smart women like Sarah and Zora.


The idea that he really could have fathered Zora has an unexpected impact upon Hal, twice divorced without children and now sharing a big house with a sweet airhead gymnast (Jennifer Tilly). He suddenly feels very lonely. If Zora longs for a father, then Hal may be longing for a child. What’s more, Hal and Sarah sense a totally unexpected mutual attraction beneath their sparring.

Very early on writer Holly Goldberg Sloan, working from a story she wrote with Marcia Brandwynne and Nadine Schiff, moves us beyond conventional interracial romantic comedy. Once Hal accepts that he is in fact Zora’s father, he wants to get to know her and become part of her life, but the fiercely self-reliant Sarah insists that a donation of sperm does not make a man a father. The truth is that Sarah, proud of her independence, doesn’t want to share the child she has raised so successfully. At the same time the mother, like her daughter, is forced to admit that Hal can be more sensitive and intelligent than the oafish guy he is on TV. Hal and Sarah also discover they both possess a wild, spontaneous sense of humor and a bold, uninhibited sexuality.

Any successful comedy must have its serious side if it is to have any weight or substance, and director Richard Benjamin displays a mastery of the film’s ever-seesawing shifts of tone. Hal and Sarah both emerge as real people because the film allows them many opportunities to calm down and get serious. Heading a large and formidable supporting cast with Will Smith as her witty boyfriend, Long in particular is impressive.

Instead of self-consciously worrying about being politically correct, the makers of “Made in America” reveal the true multicultural diversity of our society through imaginative characterization and casting, and they raise important questions about what constitutes a family and what defines a parent in this age of increasingly non-traditional households.

The film shows, without comment, that a woman can sell a car as well as a man, that a handsome young Latino just might ask out a pretty young African-American woman, that a gay black man might prefer Judy Garland to the African music he’s supposed to identify with--even if he’s conforming to a homosexual stereotype. Exceptionally well-crafted, “Made in America” (rated PG-13 for sexual situations and language) is the kind of picture Hollywood often aspires to but rarely succeeds in bringing off--smart and sophisticated with a wide appeal.

‘Made in America’

Whoopi Goldberg: Sarah Matthews

Ted Danson: Hal Jackson

Nia Long: Zora Mathews

Will Smith: Tea Cake Walters

A Warner Bros. release of a Le Studio Canal+/Regency Enterprises/Alcor Films presentation of a Stonebridge Entertainment/Kalola Productions Inc./Arnon Milchan production. Director Richard Benjamin. Producers Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas and Rick Bieber. Executive producers Nadine Schiff, Marcia Brandwynne. Screenplay Holly Goldberg Sloan; from a story by Brandwynne, Schiff and Sloan. Cinematographer Ralf Bode. Editor Jacqueline Cambas. Costumes Elizabeth McBride. Music Mark Isham. Production design Evelyn Sakash. Set decorator Hilton Rosemarin. Sound Richard Lightstone. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.


MPAA-rated PG-13 (for sexual situations and language).