AMERICA SO BEAUTIFUL BEGINS SANS IMAGE, with a darkened screen and the voices of two network anchors, Sam Donaldson and Ted Koppel, taken from a newscast in 1979. The men are discussing the Americans who were then being held hostage in Tehran. "It seems to me," says Donaldson, "that this is another situation where a lot of people's first instinct might be to use military force. But apparently Washington isn't going to do that." Koppel, in full-on schoolmarm mode, replies, "Well, first of all, it probably wouldn't work, Sam, and secondly in one word oil. Washington is tremendously concerned about Iran's oil supplies and our need for them." It's a loaded exchange, one guaranteed to elicit both chuckles and groans from the audience. History, psychology and a quick discourse on the confluence of foreign policy, military action and capitalism are all knotted into that verbal volley. This back and forth jump-starts the film, giving it a buzzy energy even before the opening credits roll. The timing of its release is America's biggest strength.
Set in Los Angeles, 1979, America So Beautiful is the quintessential American story: the struggle of immigrants to recover the American Dream from beneath the disillusionment that overtakes them when racism, poverty and endless struggle kick in. Houshang (Iranian-American pop star Mansour), who longs to invest in a trendy disco as his way of claiming the dream, crashes in the cramped home of hard-working relatives and toils in their small market while trying to pull together enough backers to raise the money he needs. Writer-director Babak Shokrian, who possesses a sharp eye for detail and a lacerating wit (dulled, unfortunately, by the repetition of ideas and the hammering of points), surrounds Houshang not only with Iranians who are holding fast to tradition, but with those who eagerly swap their birth names for generic American monikers, or try to pass themselves off as Italian. (One kid trades in Darius for "Disco Danny.") As Sahmi, a coke-sniffing con artist with a blond on each arm, says unapologetically, "Here, I'll be whatever they want me to be, just to get ahead. What do I care? I know who I am."
America So Beautiful is, of course, about identity and the conflicting demands (cultural, political, whatever) that shape it, about the juggling act that racial and ethnic minorities, particularly immigrants, have to perform as they figure out who they are in their own heads, while battling the bullshit that spills out of the heads, and mouths, of others. Shokrian harnesses the liberating pulse of disco as the soundtrack for his examination of this process, with some of the movie's best moments supported by his clever use of music. Early in the film, he cuts back and forth between characters dressing for a night out as Thelma Houston ooh's and ah's the opening of club classic "Don't Leave Me This Way," then slowly rolls his camera toward a velvet rope as it is tentatively lifted. At the exact moment Houston shouts an ecstatic "Baby!" we're suddenly on a dance floor teeming with various hues of humanity. Later, as Samhi puts an arm around Houshang's shoulders while slick-talking him, Van McCoy's "The Hustle" floats in the background. The disco, with its promise of freedom and acceptance, and its arbitrary, exclusionary door policies, is positioned as a metaphor for America itself. "What does it take to get into this place?" asks a frustrated Houshang at one point.
The film staggers, though, under its own didacticism. Too often we're told of men who were professionals back home and are here reduced to driving cabs, waiting tables or vending ice cream. The harangue against Persians who run after material success at the cost of old-style values and integrity is overly familiar from the start, and Shokrian, who tells this tale against the backdrop of the hostage crisis by weaving file news footage throughout his film does little to dust it off. Even more problematic probably is the fact that Houshang's expressions of naiveté are more exasperating than the filmmakers intended them to be; thanks to Mansour's wobbly acting, it often comes off as some kind of mental deficiency. (It's an insightful touch, though, that he's so arrogantly dismissive of the struggles that his family endures in order to survive. "I am not driving a taxi," Mansour huffs to the cabbie cousin he's hitting up for money.)
As America So Beautiful makes its way through betrayals, double-dealings and tragedy all of it fairly predictable two performances energize the film. Diane Gaidry, a younger, more nuanced Melanie Griffith, brings real depth to the role of Lucy, a single-mom bartender who befriends Houshang. Pouring drinks at the disco Houshang wants to invest in, Lucy sports a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words Disco sucks, with her face world-weary, cynical but searching substituting my life for the word disco. And in the role of Sahmi, stage actor Houshang Touzie is a perfect mix of sleaze and a certain flimsy charm, proving that regardless of culture or accent, the bad guy is always the most seductive. The film's subtle grace note is the realization that it's not just immigrants or people of color who struggle with what America promises, and what it withholds.
DELIVER US FROM EVA IS ALSO ABOUT ASSIMILAtion and identity. Working from a script he co-wrote with James Iver Mattson and B.E. Brauner, director Gary Hardwick covers similar terrain as in 1999's abysmal The Brothers, which he alone wrote and directed. The input from his two partners seems to have helped Hardwick move a bit beyond the lowbrow BET-on-the-big-screen sensibility of his earlier film and aim toward classic Hollywood romantic comedy. That's not to say that there aren't some grating, race-based flaws in the movie (Kim Whitley's tired fat-bawdy-horny-home-girl shtick; Dartanyan Edmonds as a corn-rowed, arm-flailing quipster), but Deliver Us From Eva aims a little higher than your average mainstream Negro cinema. Deliver Us From Eva is a comfortably bourgeois effort, both in its aesthetics and its sense of humor, unlike the ghetto-centric fare that consitutes so much modern black cinema. And unlike The Brothers, Eva is actually pretty funny.
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The title character, played by Gabrielle Union, is the tough, ball-busting eldest of the beautiful Dandridge sisters. While her three siblings all have husbands or boyfriends (who loathe Eva, and vice versa), Eva is dedicated solely to her career, having been the family provider since the girls' parents died years earlier. Tired of her interference in their lives, the trio of menfolk hire Ray (LL Cool J), a notorious womanizer, to woo Eva then dump her, with the idea that a broken heart will cure her of her meddlesome ways. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and true love flips the script on everyone.
Hardwick doesn't have the chops yet to give the movie the caffeinated zip that it needs to really fly. There are too many dull, flat stretches (particularly the scenes in which characters display what lies beneath their public personae) and not enough good writing. But the gorgeous Union is clearly having a ball as she mugs and snaps off her lines. Managing to pull off what Vivica A. Fox too cold, too scarily ghetto, even in designer duds has been trying to do for years in movies like Two Can Play That Game and Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Union wins you over to the movie while making you wish she had a script smart enough to really serve her talents. Meanwhile, LL Cool J solidifies his leading-man status (his trademark licking-of-the-lips and deeply sculpted physique had women at the press screening catcalling for him) and proves he can act. Deliver Us From Eva is by no means classic filmmaking, but rather a breezy date flick or an amiable weekend matinee. And the soundtrack kicks ass.
AMERICA SO BEAUTIFUL | Directed by BABAK SHOKRIAN Written by SHOKRIAN and BRIAN HORIUCHI | Produced by JANE REARDON | Released by B Good Films | At ArcLight Cinemas
DELIVER US FROM EVA | Directed by GARY HARDWICK Written by JAMES IVER MATTSON, B.E. BRAUNER and HARDWICK | Produced by PADDY CULLEN | Released by Focus Features | Citywide