Blood, I know, is thicker than water. After seeing The Perez Family, I now also know that blood is thicker than all the dialect coaching available in Hollywood. Director Mira Nair’s Perez clan are Cubans in Miami, but all you need to do is spend five minutes with Marisa Tomei as Dottie Perez, cuchifrito-ing her way through an accent inspired by Rod Steiger in The Specialist, to know that something is loco in the state of Florida.
Perhaps I should clarify: I don’t think only Cuban actors can play Cuban roles, any more than only Jewish actors can play Jews. But as the old Jewish joke goes, it couldn’t hurt. Ay Dios, if the interesting, Indian-born Nair (who made Mississippi Masala and who specializes in stories of cultural dissonance) took such obvious pains to research Cuban life in Miami’s Little Havana, what is she doing with Tomei? And, indeed, with not one Cuban in a starring role? Christine Bell’s novel, adapted by Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, is about Juan Raul Perez (Spanish-Italian-and-raised-in-England Alfred Molina from Enchanted April), a political prisoner released from captivity after 20 years who, on a boat to Miami to find his wife, Carmela (Anjelica Huston), and now-grown daughter (Little Women’s Trini Alvarado), meets Dottie, an ex-prostitute with a voracious love of America, of Hollywood, of life. (How do we know this? Because as the boat nears the Florida shore, she leaps into the surf, the better to kiss the sand and let the water arrange her dress prettily in a clingy homage to her personal trainer.)
Juan, who thinks his wife has abandoned him (in fact, she’s been a demure saint of patience), is a hound dog of misery, haggard and unkempt; Dottie is a firebrand of optimism. When immigration officials mistakenly list the two unrelated Perezes as married, Dottie urges Juan to go along with the charade, picking up other ”family members” as a means of getting through the immigration process faster. Carmela, meanwhile, meets a local Italian-American police officer (Bullets Over Broadway’s Chazz Palminteri) who begins to thaw her ladylike reserve. While Tomei plunges overboard in a preening performance that seems to say ”Look! It’s wonderful me! Playing a Cuban sexpot!,” the rest of the principals proceed with the caution of outsiders not wishing to insult the natives. They’re visitors in their own drama. Nothing feels like la verdad. C-