Judge Joel Pearce has a stern warning for young filmmakers: tragedy isn't funny. Don't confuse the two.
For Lisette, every day is Independence Day.
I Like it Like That attempts to be two films in one. It's a gritty urban soap opera featuring the often tragic events of a family and a community in danger, and it's also a romantic comedy of female liberation. As expected, those two films never really come together, and the end result is disjointed and occasionally unpleasant to watch. Columbia TriStar has released the film on a technically proficient but unimpressive disc.
Facts of the Case
Lisette (Lauren Vélez, Oz) has had it with her life. Her husband, Chino (Jon Seda, Twelve Monkeys) has been imprisoned for stealing a stereo, leaving her to take care of her bratty kids, pull enough money together to eat, and deal with the possibility that Chino has had a child with a local beauty named Magdalena (Lisa Vidal, Chasing Papi). At first, she doesn't know how to handle any of this, but she stumbles on an opportunity to work as a "personal assistant" to Stephen Price (Griffin Dunne, After Hours, a somewhat sleazy music producer. Her sudden success coupled with the return of Chino only makes matters worse, though, and it seems as though they have been pulled apart forever.
There are quite a few strong points in I Like it Like That. The performances from both of the leads are extremely strong, never descending into parody or disrespecting the real challenges that urban Americans often face. Lisette is a particularly compelling character, delivered perfectly by Lauren Vélez. When Lisette is stranded at the beginning of the film, she has already reached a breaking point with Chino and her life in general. She still lives under his shadow, though, so she is discouraged from going out and getting a job on her own, but also expected to do more than she is able to without any money. When she steps out with confidence, she realizes for the first time that her ideas and abilities are actually worth something, and that she doesn't have to be a miserable housewife for the rest of her life. If she chooses, she doesn't have to turn into her mother, and she doesn't have to take responsibility for what Chino and her children do. Unfortunately, Lisette still cares about her family, and she is then thrust into a situation where it seems like she needs to make a difficult choice between them.
Director Darnell Martin also shows that he is quite interested in the deconstruction of gender roles in contemporary urban society. This comes mostly through the inclusion of Lisette's transvestite brother, Alexis (Jesse Borego, Con Air). His own refusal to accept his identity as a male works as an encouragement for Lisette to be who she feels she is meant to be, not what is expected of her. This isn't simple, though, especially when she is abused and taken advantage of by Stephen. It isn't so much that she wants to change, but she refuses to continue to live with the expectations that she has always felt have trapped her.
There are also moments of intense power when it comes to Lisette and Chino's children. Lisette's oldest son gets the opportunity to become a drug dealer, and the way that both of his parents choose to deal with that situation is both unsettling and troubling. No punches are pulled in the approach to the drug situation, as a reality of the neighborhood and possibly even the boy's destiny from growing up in that place. He hears mixed messages telling him that he has to jump in, take control, and become a man, but also telling him that he shouldn't do the same things as the adults that he sees around him every day.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite these powerful performances and moments, I Like it Like That never manages to come together. The strong moments are undercut by scenes ripped right out of a generic romantic comedy. Who is the father of Magdalena's baby? Will Lisette choose her rich white boss or her ungrateful, irresponsible husband? The humorous situations that Lisette finds herself in don't really meld with the generally serious tone of the film, which prevents it from becoming the moving urban story it could have been.
At the same time, the funny parts simply aren't funny enough to hold their own against the intense emotional scenes that surround them. If the whole point is for Lisette to escape and live her own life, it's not funny that she is taken advantage of by her boss. The abuse of the children, both psychological and physical, makes some of the "funny" scenes really inappropriate. The children are so chaotic that it seems to border on parody, but it's jarringly annoying and sad as well, so it doesn't work. In comedies, we laugh at either characters that have exaggerated flaws or ones that fall prey to life's usual quirks. Realistic characters in awful situations aren't funny, just like Schindler's List isn't funny. Here, though, we are supposed to laugh, and that expectation bothers me.
Technically, the transfer of this disc is solid but unimpressive. The anamorphic image is detailed and rich, and it does an excellent job of handling the black levels and the vivid color palette. Every now and then the budget of the film is revealed, but it is as clean as can be expected. The Dolby 2.0 surround transfer is slightly less impressive, heavy in the front channels. Still, the music packs a reasonable punch and the dialogue is always clear, so it's a minor complaint.
The disc doesn't contain any extras or subtitles. At a very minimum, Spanish subtitles should have been included on this disc in order to reach the population that would be most interested in the film.
I realize that I am not a part of the target demographic for this particular film. I don't have much in the way of urban experience, so I've never had to try to survive in a place like the Bronx. Still, I think it's important to be very careful when mixing comedy and tragedy. If they get stirred around too much, you lose the power of both elements. As a first feature film, I Like it Like That showed a great deal of potential from a young and enthusiastic director who just needed some more practice to pull something great together. Unfortunately, it seems that he has yet to deliver on that promise. If the premise of the film sounds interesting, it's worth checking out for the great performances and critical ideas. I can't recommend it for purchase, though. It has too many flaws to stand up to multiple viewings.
I Like it Like That has only been spared because of the work of a fine cast.
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