The Perez Family
directed by Mira Nair
(Samuel Goldwyn Co., 1995)

In 1980, the Mariel boatlift helped tens of thousands of Cuban political prisoners find asylum in the United States.

In 1995, it inspired The Perez Family, a tale of love, hate and samba that spans the decades from Castro's ascent to power in Cuba to the last days of the boatlift.

At the center of the tale are Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei) and Juan Raoul Perez (Alfred Molina), two unrelated refugees with little in common except their desire to be expatriates.

Their reasons for that vary as well. Dottie wants to go the States because she loves Elvis and wants to meet John Wayne; Juan to be reunited with his wife and daughter, who left shortly before Juan torched his fields to keep them from Fidel.

Despite differences in age, social class and political philosophy ("I came to the U.S. to get away from political asylum," Dottie tells a border guard), Dottie and Juan find themselves driven to one another again and again for mutual protection, all while pursuing their own goals, all in the sun-drenched cityscape around Miami's Orange Bowl, where the boat people are bivouacked.

Now on the surface this may not sound like the stuff belly laughs are made of, but The Perez Family is not a film about surfaces.

Instead, director Mira Nair takes the camera beneath the surface of events into the realm of character, and comes up with a movie that mines the deep vein of irony that surrounds events like Mariel.

That irony reaches its peak in the bowels of the Rose Bowl, where Dottie decides to get herself off the bottom of the sponsorship list by cobbling together a fictitious family that includes not only Juan, but a street urchin named Felipe (Jose Felipe Padron) and Dottie's "long-lost" mute grandfather (Lazaro Perez), whose shower scene provides the film's funniest running gag.

Providing luxurious contrast to Dottie's phony family is the real Perez household, which consists of Juan's wife Carmello (Anjelica Huston) and daughter Teresa (Celia Cruz), plus Carmello's brother Angel (Diego Wallraff). They're doing quite well in Miami, though Carmello longs for the return of her husband in ways which remind us how nice it is to be missed.

Toss in an amorous Anglo guard (Bill Sage), an amorous Latino fed (Chazz Palminteri) and an officious official of Indian origin from Immigration and Naturalization (Ranjit Chowdhry) and you have a Zhivago-esque tale of crossed paths and missed opportunities that rivals Exodus for scope and Casablanca for sheer number of plotlines.

Unfortunately, The Perez Family proves the old adage that it's easier to get into trouble than out of it. After two hours of bringing us into the hearts and minds of Mariel's most unusual nuclear family, director Nair doesn't unravel things with the same skill he used to knot them up.

Following Juan and Carmello's climactic confrontation, Perez slips suddenly into soap opera, then tries to pick up the ending with that old Hollywood stand-by, the music-driven montage. That may have worked well for Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally, but Mariel was a defining moment in the Cold War and the lives of thousands of individuals. The Perez family -- both Perez families -- deserved better.

Fortunately, Nair's film has much to recommend it. Where it fails, it's forgivable, where it succeeds, it's smashing. If ultimately it can't articulate its vision of the human heart, at least it raises some perceptive questions. And leaves you laughing.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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