Livin’ Large In America-Sheridan’s Latter-Day Irish Pilgrims

Jim Sheridan’s In America , from a screenplay by Mr. Sheridan and his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, manages to be artfully deceptive in its distribution of autobiographical fact and seemingly wild-eyed fiction. For starters, Mr. Sheridan, his wife Fran, and his two little girls did enter the United States illegally in 1982 by crossing the Canadian border-they posed as “tourists on holiday,” hiding their real intention to live and work in Manhattan.

In the movie, the husband is named Johnny (Paddy Considine), the wife Sarah (Samantha Morton), the older daughter Christy (Sarah Bolger) and the younger one Ariel (Emma Bolger). The crossing goes much more smoothly in the film than it reportedly did in real life, thus establishing a pattern of juggling facts and fictions for a variety of aesthetic reasons. Yet an incestuous impression of being too close and too indulgent to his material persists through all the choppy continuity of Mr. Sheridan’s quasi-autobiographical enterprise.

This clammy closeness serves as a safety net when the major characters face numerous hurdles, such as the moment when Johnny gambles his family’s entire savings on his skill at a pitch-ball stand in a street fair just to win an E.T. doll for his youngest daughter; or when Sarah risks her life in a hazardous pregnancy in order to mitigate the guilt she feels for the accidental death earlier of her infant son, Frankie (whose demise has driven the family to find a new life in America, literally with the subsequent and near-miraculous birth of daughter Tess).

Tess is and was real enough in real life, but the ill-fated Frankie-to whom Mr. Sheridan’s film is dedicated-was in reality not his son, but his younger brother. Thus, Mr. Sheridan combined his own feelings in losing a brother with his father’s feelings in losing a son. The result is a form of emotional ventriloquism spanning three generations.

Since most of the film was shot in Dublin and only part of it in downtown Manhattan, the pervasive look of the settings and the backgrounds is vague, timeless and abstract. The resultant heightened emphasis on individual scenes makes it too easy to report that the parts are more credible than the whole, which has become a critical cliché in this fragmented, non-linear season.

Fortunately, In America is redeemed by the joyousness of family life that Mr. Sheridan captures from his agile and resourceful foursome. The commanding African-American actor Djimon Hounsou contributes a stirring presence as Mateo, a dying AIDS-afflicted painter-neighbor whose manner is initially menacing, but whose soul is ultimately intertwined with the near-miracle of Tess’ birth and the liberation of Johnny and Sarah from their agonizing guilt over Frankie’s death. I should be more skeptical about an Irish-African collaboration on mystical afterlife journeys-baby Frankie and Mateo travel to the moon and beyond-but the spirit of In America makes for a curiously ecumenical celebration in this grim season which is allegedly all about spiritual renewal.

Las Vegas Losers

Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler , from a screenplay by Frank Hannah and Mr. Kramer, provides the back story for a certified Las Vegas loser character: Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy) is employed, in a manner of speaking, by the management of the Shangri-La gambling casino as a kind of professional jinx who can change the luck of a customer on a hot streak simply by standing next to him.

Actually, Bernie-the “cooler” in question-has been working off a huge gambling debt incurred many years before when his friend, Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin), the manager of the Shangri-La, saved his life by taking him on as a cooler after first breaking Bernie’s kneecaps, leaving him a permanent limp to go with his loser image. But with a failed marriage, an estranged son and a lost cat, Bernie is jinxed outside the casino as much as he jinxes hot gamblers inside.

Bernie’s luck seems to begin to change when a new, to-die-for-looking cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello) comes on to him after he has rescued her from an abusive customer. On their very first date, she takes the initiative in launching Bernie on a night of tumultuous unpaid sex-the best he has experienced in ages and ages.

Immediately, his mood changes and a smile creases his face after years of a doleful countenance. Coincidentally, he is only a short time away from paying off his debt to Shelly and the Shangri-La. When that day of liberation finally arrives, Bernie is determined to get as far away from Vegas as he can, and now wants to take Natalie with him as well.

Meanwhile, Shelly has problems of his own besides Bernie’s financially disastrous loss of his power to “cool” and his imminent departure. The partners who own the Shangri-La have decided to “modernize,” and have sent in Larry Sokolov (Ron Livingston), an ambitious trouble-shooter who wants Shelly’s job. Sokolov envisions streamlining the Shangri-La from its old-fashioned gambling-only backstreet mold to a gaudy three-floor gambling palace with an entertainment center and a roller-coaster. Sokolov’s first move in the changeover is to replace Buddy (Paul Sorvino), the aging pop singer in the Paradise Lounge, with Johnny Cappella (Joey Fatone), reputedly appealing to a younger demographic.

We have now been dragged into Godfather country, with Shelly earning our sympathy for being loyal to Buddy, who even more pathetically is a hopeless heroin addict. In addition, Shelly takes on a traditionalist aura-the Bugsy Siegel mode of standing his ground against the ongoing Disneyfication of Las Vegas.

I’m sorry, but I found this gruffly sentimental subplot too grotesque to take seriously. After all, the whole point of the “cooler” gimmick is to remind us that the basic business of Las Vegas consists of making as many people as possible lose as much money as possible without their being held up at gunpoint. So spare me the tears over Shelly’s manly nostalgia and Buddy’s planned obsolescence.

As for Bernie and Natalie, their getaway plans are put on hold when Bernie’s estranged son Mikey (Shawn Hatosy) blows into town with his supposedly pregnant girlfriend, Charlene (Estella Warren). Burdened with guilt over his neglect of Mikey, Bernie accedes to Mikey’s plea for $3,000 to help bring the baby into the world. Mikey then puts Bernie into another hole with the Shangri-La by being caught at the craps table with loaded dice, which usually means an automatic death sentence for Mikey. To save his son, Bernie gives up Natalie and his hope of ever escaping Shelly’s clutches. Natalie stubbornly refuses to give up Bernie, and is beaten up by Shelly and his thugs for her loyalty.

Between them, Bernie and Natalie have piled up enough I.O.U.’s from mob-run Vegas to send them both to the cemetery. Instead, they escape to a new life through a seemingly last-minute contrivance that is as unbelievable as anything I have seen this year. I strongly suspect that Mr. Kramer and Mr. Hannah painted themselves into a corner, and had as much trouble as George Bush in finding a plausible exit strategy.

Still, The Cooler deserves to be seen for one of the most lyrically convincing sex scenes of the year, from the neck up as well as from the neck down, performed by Mr. Macy and Ms. Bello with genuinely engaging affection and amusement on a person-to-person level. On the minus side is the lingering impression that the admittedly original idea of a “cooler” is not substantial enough to stand scrutiny over the duration of a feature-length movie. Hence, the prospective moviegoer must balance the pleasure derived from the proficient performances of Mr. Macy, Ms. Bello and Mr. Baldwin against the pain inflicted by a collapsed narrative.

Bad Medicine

Ron Howard’s The Missing , from a screenplay by Ken Kaufman, based on the novel The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson, opens with a close-up of Cate Blanchett sitting deep in thought and concern, framed against a background of unevenly spaced wooden slats letting in the sunshine. Suddenly a strange voice is heard yelling, and Ms. Blanchett changes expression, after which the camera switches to an outside long shot of a New Mexico outhouse circa 1885. Think of it: a western with an action heroine introduced sitting on a potty! It makes you wonder why, during the past century of westerns, there were no men’s rooms in the frontier saloons filled with gunslingers swilling their rotgut whiskey. In more recent times, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman took unfair advantage of a villain emerging from an outhouse, his gun hand occupied with holding up his pants, in Unforgiven (1992). But our heroes were excused from having to relieve themselves on screen.

The Missing is full of such disillusioning yet “realistic” touches, and the narrative is frequently interrupted by informative discussions on such sobering subjects as military venality, corruption and general malfeasance; the effectiveness of Anglo healing methods as opposed to the spirit medicine of the Apaches; and the emergence of a Mexican white-slavery market for white virgins abducted from isolated farms in New Mexico by an array of renegade Apache scouts who deserted from the U.S. Army. (To keep the proceedings politically correct, a pair of uncorrupted Apaches are thrown into the plot mix.)

After a while, a story of sorts kicks in, with Ms. Blanchett’s Maggie Gilkeson in pursuit of the renegade Apaches who have kidnapped her older daughter Lily (Evan Rachel Wood). She’s accompanied in her quest by her younger daughter, Dot (Jenna Boyd), and her recently returned father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who has never been forgiven by his daughter Maggie for abandoning the family to live with the Apaches-in Maggie’s mind, hastening the death of her mother.

Indeed, at first Maggie wants no part of her father, but when the Army refuses her request to pursue her daughter’s kidnappers, she’s forced to turn to her father for his tracking skills and general knowledge of Apaches. Mr. Howard keeps the emotional temperature of the family reunion as chilly as possible, but it’s clear that the father-daughter relationship is the core of the drama, and the rest is all time-consuming digressions.

Maggie carries an extra share of guilt for not having gotten along with her older daughter, who longed to escape from the hardscrabble existence on her mother’s farm. She was actually on a trip to town with her mother’s illicit male companion, Brake Baldwin (Aaron Eckhart), when she’s kidnapped and Brake butchered by Chidin (Eric Schweig), a particularly malignant sadist and one-time shaman who is now a brujo or witch. Indeed, he’s such bad news from beginning to end that I can’t help wondering why two frontier-savvy characters like Jones and Maggie decided that they could trust Chidin to let them buy back Lily for ransom. What happens next is grim, bloody, implacable and somewhat improbable, but by this time I was too exhausted by all the digressions to care.