Judge David Gutierrez was quite impressed by Jimmy Smits's Jimmy. That's his character in this movie, silly.
"Life has been good to us. It has been very, very good."—Jose Sanchez (Eduardo López Rojas)
Family dramas depicting several generations are difficult to do. My Family (Mi Familia) sets out to show us what life was like for a Mexican-American family living in Los Angeles from the Great Depression to 1980. Unfortunately, the film exceeds its grasp and plays out more like a series of vignettes and less like a film.
Facts of the Case
In order to get around any heavy exposition through dialogue, the filmmakers opted to have the story narrated by the character of Paco (Edward James Olmos). Paco begins the story of his family at its most logical point: when his father met his mother.
After a year's long travel from Mexico to Los Angeles, California, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) meets and falls in love with Maria (Jennifer Lopez). They marry and have two children, Paco and Irene. All is well until Maria is suddenly deported to Mexico. Maria is pregnant, but must give birth and somehow get back to her husband. In some instances, this may well be enough story for an entire film; this is just the first twenty minutes of My Family (Mi Familia). Maria returns two years later with son Jesus, AKA Chucho.
Next, it's almost twenty years later and eldest daughter Irene (now played by Maria Canals) is getting married. Chucho (Esai Morales) and Paco the Narrator (now played by Benito Martinez) have grown up. New additions to the family include Toni (Constance Marie), Guillermo AKA Memo, and "surprise" brother Jimmy (Jonathon Hernandez). The film really begins to gain momentum after the wedding, when a series of events seal Chucho's fate. After accidentally killing rival Butch (Michael De Lorenzo), Chucho is gunned down by the LAPD before Jimmy's eyes. Chucho's life and death and his relationships with his father and brother Jimmy are plenty of material for one film; in My Family (Mi Familiar) time, about an hour's worth of story. About another twenty years later, we find Jimmy (Jimmy Smits) has just completed his stint in jail and is coming home. Sister Toni surprises her parents with the announcement that she is no longer a nun and has just married David (Scott Bakula), an ex-priest. Maria and Jose (now played by Jenny Gago and Eduardo López Rojas, respectively) are stunned. To complicate matters, Toni and David save a Salvadoran nanny, Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo), by marrying her off to Jimmy to get her her citizenship. Eventually, Jimmy and Isabel truly fall for one another and have a child together. Jimmy gets a new son, but loses his wife. Enraged, Jimmy tries vandalism and lands in the clink again, leaving his parents to care for his son. A handful of years later, Jimmy comes back and tries to win his son's love, repeatedly meeting failure. The final act has plenty of story for its own feature; in My Family (Mi Familia) time, Jimmy's plight takes up the last hour.
One thing this film is not short on is talent. Starting with the director, Gregory Nava makes me believe Los Angeles used to be beautiful and inhabitable. Anytime the Sanchez house is shown, it's depicted with an honest warmth and invitation. Nava doesn't employ any camera tricks like abstract angles, and he doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. His approach to this film is a sensible one. In fact, most times it feels like he's set the camera down and let the actors do their thing. Who can blame him?
My Family (Mi Familia) does its best to give the actors some room to perform. I was most impressed with Eduardo López Rojas. Maybe it's because he reminds me of my father and my uncles, but as Jose, Rojas carried himself with genuine father's exhaustion. Every action, movement, and look felt tired, as one would expect from someone who labored so hard his entire life. I never had the sense he was acting—the mark of a good actor. Pairing Jenny Gago with Rojas was a smart casting move. They felt like a real married couple. Esai Morales never fails as Chucho. Morales makes every scene his own, without ever upstaging the other actors. Ever since La Bamba I've maintained he's probably one of the most versatile actors around. Constance Marie (The George Lopez Show, An American Family) apparently got her start in this film, but you wouldn't know it. She's adept at playing the bossy ex-nun sister. Edward James Olmos outcools everyone else with that voice of his. He's physically in around three scenes, but Paco's mouthpiece is heard throughout. Jimmy Smits (NYPD Blue, L.A. Lawcommands the movie. In a not so subtle way, the entire movie leads up to Jimmy's (the character, not the actor) crippling life. Unfortunately, with a cast this size, many characters get the short end of the stick. Elpidia Carrillo (Predator, Kingpin) does what she can as Isabel with her ten minutes of screen time. She'll make you care about her situation despite what little you learn about her. Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap, Enterprise) and Jennifer Lopez (Gigli, Selena) fans can skip this one. Lopez comes and goes, saying hardly anything. Bakula doesn't say much at all. Benito Martinez aficionados best continue to watch the brilliant series The Shield to see him do more than stand around.
Another of the film's strengths is its dialogue. Screenwriters Nava and Anna Thomas deserve recognition for allowing their characters to have distinct voices. While some the characters were archetypes and not individuals, the characters added to the story and helped it build. Sadly, the decision as to what story to tell was never made.
My Family (Mi Familia) suffers from time constraints. At just a little over two hours, I still felt like I was watching My Family (Mi Familia)—Highlights and not an entire movie. When going about making a movie of this generational scope, a writer has to decide where the story truly is. In this case, what holds the story together and connects the vignettes are the father-son relationships. How the film begins and how it ends do not connect. It's not really the story of the family Sanchez; it's really the Jimmy story.
A film like this needs time to breathe. Compared to generational epics like Roots or The Godfather, My Family (Mi Familia) isn't given the same time to build. Multiple actors playing the same role also hurt the movie. When most audiences invest in a character, they're investing themselves in the actor who plays him. When that actor changes but the character stays the same, the audience is asked to invest all over again. My Family (Mi Familia) could do with about four more hours to tell the stories it set out to tell. Either that, or rename this film "Jimmy."
As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate more and more what I have rather than what I don't. The relationship I have with my father has always been important to me. This is probably why father-son stories always get me in the gut. At the heart of My Family (Mi Familia) is how fathers and sons find redemption and failure in one another's eyes. Chucho lets Jose down, making him feel as though he failed Chucho. Jimmy lets his son down and tries to bring himself back into his life to find his purpose and salvation. Isn't that always the way with fathers and sons?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
New Line has no love for this film. In their defense, I did watch a test disc, so I hope they made improvements before they released this DVD to the public. If I didn't know any better, I'd think that someone took a razor to the transfer footage. The first ten minutes are filled with scratches and nicks. The defects lessen as the movie progresses, but they're noticeable enough to drive me nuts. The sound ebbs a great deal. I tried this disc out on two televisions and continually had to ride the sound buttons on the remote control to keep this thing audible. Terrible.
The making-of featurette didn't get any better treatment. It looks as though it was dubbed off a fourth generation VHS copy. The colors bleed, the picture is fuzzy, and it sounds muffled and garbled. What's more, it doesn't add any real value or provide any additional information about the production of the film. The original trailer looks about as good as the featurette.
By no means perfect, My Family (Mi Familia) is still worth checking out. Watch it for the performances and watch it with your parents.
The people request an apology from New Line. It needs to treat its films better and will be held without bail until sentencing. My Family (Mi Familia) is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Original Trailer
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