'Perez Family': strangers and lovers in a strange land

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Perez Family" has a lot more sultry spice and spark than is suggested by its dull but appropriate title. It's a story of more than one family. It's the story of the greater Cuban family, and therefore of Miami, that most Cuban and tropical American city.

Its focus is the Mariel boat lift of 1980, when Fidel Castro emptied his prisons and sent the refuse of his teeming shore to America. Among those huddled masses, which got a pretty bad rep in Miami, were political prisoners such as Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina). After 20 years behind bars, longing to be reunited with his wife, Carmela (Anjelica Huston), he finally experiences freedom -- although he's locked up in the Orange Bowl with the other refugees, waiting to be sorted out.

With him by happenstance is Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), who's no relation but who takes advantage of their like names to pose as his wife. Families, you see, find sponsors more quickly; Dottie grasps every opportunity and bogus family member she can in order to improve her chances.

A kind of Scarlett O'Hara, without the Civil War, Dottie is the tropical whirlwind around which this movie revolves. Uninhibitedly sensual and proud, as played by Tomei, she is hilarious and tender by turns. Tomei's infectious performance -- loud and excessive, but suited to the character -- is among many good ones.

Molina, who's come a long way since he helped Indy Jones storm the temple at the beginning of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" ("Throw me the idol!"), gives a wonderfully shaded performance, occasionally droll but mostly sophisticated and melancholy. Just America is a shock to Juan Raul after his imprisonment, his reunion with Huston's character, Carmela, is not what he anticipated.

Not just about the exile experience, "The Perez Family" explores how love can defy expectations. Huston, whose character thinks her husband has missed the last boat from Cuba, finally resolves to live again. Seizing the day and wooing Carmela is law officer John Pirelli, charmingly played by Chazz Palminteri, who was so good in "Bullets Over Broadway."

Worth mentioning, too, is Diego Wallraff as the comically spitfire Angel Diaz, who's so protective of his family that he insists on arming his sister, Carmela, and teaching her how to use a gun. That plot point is the one annoying contrivance (of many likable contrivances) in the sprawling film, creating a note of false suspense that would have been better omitted. While there are dark and dramatic elements in "The Perez Family," in essence it's an affirming, upbeat movie.

It's also bursting with color under the palm trees. This is Miami in all its edge-of-the-States glory; as Cuba was described in the old tourism slogan, "So near and yet so foreign." Director Mira Nair, whose credits include the delicious "Mississippi Masala," again immerses us into a singular culture and makes it feel both fresh and familiar. You can practically taste it in Carmela's fresh-squeezed orange juice.

"The Perez Family"

Directed by Mira Nair

Starring Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina and Anjelica Huston

Released by Samuel Goldwyn

Rated R (language, sexual situations)

***

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