FILM / Shaking up a genetic pick 'n' mix: Adam Mars-Jones watches Made in America, about the search for a father-figure

WHOOPI GOLDBERG has a supreme advantage, despite being a comic actress who almost always seems better than the material she has to work with: she never makes you feel embarrassed for her, which may come in handy when the threatened sequel to Sister Act appears. You feel she's doing what she wants to do, even when you know it can't be so.

She can be lying unconscious in hospital after falling off her bicycle, as happens at a particuarly formulaic moment in Made in America, with a doctor muttering 'the next 48 hours are critical' above her head, and she still doesn't let you think that she's throwing herself away one more time. She can be pushed by some directors along the road marked Bette Midler Boulevard - Beware Landslides, being encouraged to shriek and bellow, to make her throat into a knot and her eyes bug out, but she holds on to some element of grace, some ghost of dignity and smoothness, no matter what hoops she must jump through.

In Made in America the hoops include a drunk scene, in which she must slurp scotch and attempt the hokey-cokey, and a romantic evening with Ted Danson, where in response to compliments about her personal aroma she must murmur throatily, 'Smell me'.

Ted Danson's role in the film, as an ageing but still successful Lothario who uses his cowboy image to promote the truck dealership he owns, is no great stretch from his decade-long role as Sam in Cheers - an ageing but still successful Lothario, who uses his ex-professional athlete image to promote the bar he owns. It is a tribute to the lasting power of typecasting that there is a subliminal tension to scenes in Made in America where the cowboy character takes a drink, as if Sam's recovering-alcoholic status was in danger from this lookalike's indulgence. By this time, Danson's screen persona is so set (despite pre-Cheers work in The Onion Field and Body Heat) that it's hardly possible anymore to wonder whether he is a subtle interpreter of second-rate characters or a limited performer coasting.

The plot gimmick of Made in America is that Zora, a young science student (Nia Long) testing her blood type as part of a classroom project finds that her father cannot be the person she has always been told he was. In fact her mother (Goldberg), when left a widow at a young age, chose to conceive by anonymous donation, but never got around to passing this information on. Zora gains access to the clinic's records, tracks down her father and finds out that he is the white truck dealer (Danson) whose ads, featuring embarrassing routines with trained animals, turn up on late-night television.

Artificial insemination only features occasionally in the movies as a subject, but it's pretty much the guiding principle behind their making. White-coated script technicians are forever mixing together genetic material from previous hits, hoping to produce more of the same, with just that little extra twist. The genesis of Made In America illustrates the process rather neatly. The film's executive producers, Nadine Schiff and Marcia Brandwynne, came up with the original concept in its bare bones - young woman seeks donor father. This concept then acquired a number of godparents, in the form of a producer (Michael Douglas), a screenwriter (Holly Goldberg Sloan) and a director (Richard Benjamin), still without being about the thing it ends up being about: racial difference. It was only when Whoopi Goldberg took an interest that ethnicity entered the mix. The female lead was rewritten with her in mind, though when custom tailoring is done this late on in a project it comes under the heading of repairs and alterations.

The late arriving subject matter does give Made in America a faint quickening, a distant throb of viability. Fatherlessness has a particular relevance to black experience, as recent films have taken pains to remind us. Sometimes black women seemed to be blamed for failing to keep their men, and thereby depriving their children of male role models - as in Boyz N The Hood, where Made In America's Nia Long got her start. Sometimes the tone is self-consciously feminist, as in Jungle Fever, where the blame is put more on black men for having so little to offer their sisters, being less advanced politically. At all events, a black woman in search of a father figure is a theme with a certain amount of sociological potential as well as the inevitable cargo of sentiment.

The screenwriter comes up with a fair number of good lines and confrontations, though she also leaves some loose threads dangling, perhaps as a result of those repairs and alterations. Young Zora seems to own the prototype of an extremely useful device, the homing moped, since although she leaves her machine at Danson's house and rides to work with him, she doesn't need to pick it up and is soon happily bombing around on it again. A gay guy who works at the heroine's African culture shop vanishes abruptly from the action after the opening reel, his Silence Equals Death T-shirt no insurance against invisibility.

It is the director Richard Benjamin, though, who most lets down his talented performers with the obviousness of his handling. When Zora's friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) poses as a sperm donor to infiltrate the clinic, Benjamin makes the nurse leer in slow motion, her voice distorted so that it sounds like something out of The Exorcist. Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson are given a love scene full of collisions and breakages that seems modelled on a similar encounter between Emma Thompson and Jeff Goldblum in The Tall Guy, with the added infelicity of tango music.

Mark Isham, one of the most interesting people working in film music today, is credited as composer, but his distinctive atmospherics are crowded out by lacklustre ballads that spell out the moral of the story for our benefit. Ted Danson has been hired to look thoughtful as if despite his truck dealership and the aerobics instructor he shares his bed with there might be something lacking in his world, while, as back-up, crooning voices assure us that we're all prisoners of our freedom, that time can steal our lives.

(Photograph omitted)

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