Mira Nair's "The Perez Family" opens with a
Fellini-esque scene of elegantly dressed people promenading by a beach. Then
the music turns sad as they begin to wade into the waves, and there's a cut to
a Cuban prison. For Havana's bourgeoise, the good times are over.
to the early 1980s, and a boatload of prisoners released by Fidel Castro is
sailing for the United States. We meet Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina), who
still carries a flame of love in his heart for the wife he has not seen in 20
years. Also on board is Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), a sometime hooker,
determined to get a fresh start in the new land.
two Perezes are not related. Indeed, as Juan tells a U.S. immigration official
(also named Perez), "If you want something done in this life, ask a Perez
- there are so many of us!" They join thousands of other refugees in a
temporary camp set up in Miami's football stadium, and when Dottie discovers
that families can find American sponsors more readily than single people, she
proposes to Juan that they become "married" to squeeze through an
immigration loophole. To increase their chances, they even recruit a youngster
to be their son, and a dotty old man to be the grandfather.
Juan goes along with the scheme, but only because he is so eager
to be reunited with his wife, Carmela Perez (Anjelica Huston), who got out of
Cuba 20 years ago. They have been waiting for each other ever since, but now
they may stumble just as they reach the finish line. Still on the boat, Juan
frets about his appearance after years in prison: "My teeth are too poor
to kiss my wife." Dottie boldly kisses him. "Don't worry," she
says; "you can kiss your wife." "The Perez Family" makes a
romantic comedy out of these offbeat ingredients, and although we have not
often seen such stories told about Cuban-Americans with political backgrounds,
we have seen some of the same elements before, in screwball comedies. What
happens is that just at the moment they are about to be reunited, both Juan and
Carmela fall in love with others - but refuse to admit it.
other key player in the cast is Chazz Palminteri, as Pirelli, a federal agent
who is working with the Miami police and finds himself making frequent visits
to Carmela's house when her alarm system keeps going off. The alarms have been
installed by her jealous brother, who goes ballistic when she gets near any
man. Carmela and Pirelli soon find that when the bells toll, they toll for
them. It's fairly clear early in the film what will happen, more or less. The
fun is in getting there.
has been controversy over the casting of so many non-Hispanic actors in
Hispanic roles in "The Perez Family" - and there was certainly no
shortage of talented Latino actors for "My Family," a film released
at about the same time. But maybe non-traditional casting is a two-way street;
what's certain is that the actors bring real heart to their roles. Tomei in
particular has undergone some sort of transformation from her performances in
"My Cousin Vinny" and "Only You," and now emerges as
earthier and juicier. Anjelica Huston brings some of the same conflicting
passions to this role she had in "Prizzi's Honor," and Alfred Molina,
a British actor, is surprisingly convincing as her husband.
director, Mira Nair, is a New Yorker who was born in India. She has a special
interest in new arrivals to America; her previous film, "Mississippi
Masala" (1992) was about a family of Indians from Uganda, operating a
motel in the South. Here, she shows a good eye for the details of immigration,
some of them fairly bizarre, as when the Miami Dolphins practice on the field
of their stadium while the stands and entrance halls are jammed with thousands
are other details: The fake Perez "family" is moved out of the
stadium, housed in a church rectory, and makes money by selling flowers at stop
signs. A U.S. immigration official, himself an immigrant from the Indian
subcontinent, is as bemused by the laws as anyone, but sworn to uphold them.
And Carmela, now a Miami suburbanite with a daughter (Trini Alvarado) her
husband has never seen, is willing to say anything to be reunited with him.
("She may be the most beautiful liar I have ever met," Palminteri
movie relies a little too much on contrivance sometimes. It's
barely possible that Dottie dreams of making love to John Wayne soon after her
arrival in America, and the scene where she finds out he is already dead is a
funny one. But surely even in Cuba she would have known Elvis was also dead
("Elvis, too? So many assassinations!"). The movie sometimes bends
the plausible to set up a laugh, and most of the time I didn't care, because I
was enjoying the company of the characters.