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)

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape