There are two films currently showing in theaters which may tweak the heartstrings of particular transplants.
Or, maybe not tweak their heartstrings as much as rattle their chains.
On the surface, “Don Jon” and “The Family” appear to be quite different. One is a dark raunchy comedy while the other isn’t quite sure if it’s a comedy or a drama, not really fitting into either category. One thing they’re certain to have in common is heavy criticism from some members of the Italian-American community.
But the other quality they share is that east coast transplants might relate to both.
In “Don Jon”, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jon Martello, young New Jersey Romeo who gets plenty of girls but is also addicted to pornography. Not exactly your typical premise for a romcom, but somehow Levitt makes it work. While many may find this movie offensive for its plethora of porn clips, there are probably an equal number who will object to its Jersey/Italian stereotypes.
And this movie covers them all. There’s Jon himself, a guy who goes to confession and church every Sunday (while cutting other drivers off in traffic and cursing them out on the way), always confessing the same two sins and saying his penance prayers in the gym while lifting weights. (Note: as someone who's said her prayers while on the treadmill, I totally get that.) Then there’s his quirky family, a younger sister who appears to be completely oblivious to life around her, constantly texting on her cell phone even during Mass, a father (played by Tony Danza) who comes to the dinner table in his “guinea tee” (as does Jon) and yells at whatever sports are on TV throughout the meal, and a mom who wants nothing more than to see Jon meet a nice girl, get married and give her grandchildren: “Someday I’m gonna sit across from you at this table and you’re gonna tell me, “I found her”.
It’s also got a real Italian-American princess (played by Scarlett Johansson while nailing the Jersey accent perfectly), who appears to be Jon’s “dime” dream girl until her controlling (controlling = euphemism for ball-busting) nature emerges. This is a girl who wants all things her way, all the time.
For example, she believes real men should not vacuum. Nor should she. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, she is horrified that Jon wants to buy Swiffer refills and reveals she does not even know what a Swiffer is and will NOT tolerate him talking about sweeping, which she finds almost as repulsive as his porn. And she finds his porn extremely repulsive.
But the thing about stereotypes is this-sometimes they’re real. And anyone who’s lived in New Jersey has met these people, every last one of them. This movie will definitely hit a few nerves. As I always told those who asked me if “Jersey Shore” was realistic: in part, yes. Not everyone is like that, but they’re out there. Oh yeah, they are.
Which brings us to the second movie on today’s list, “The Family”. This one’s the story of the Manzoni turned “Blake” family, headed by Robert De Niro and relocated from Brooklyn, New York to Normandy, France courtesy of witness protection. Talk about major culture shock.
But the Manzonis have a unique way of dealing with their transplant frustrations. If you thought moving to the desert was a challenge because finding fresh mozzarella is difficult, you can probably relate when Maggie Manzoni (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) is frustrated because while her family loves peanut butter, the French consider it disgusting and unhealthy and therefore won’t stock it in their markets. However, you most likely wouldn’t blow up a market over it.
When you reminisce about the old friends you left behind and with whom you used to spend weekends hanging out in the backyard, you probably don’t need to add the qualification that De Niro’s character does, “I loved them, even though I had to kill them”.
And if your teenage daughter tries to fit into her new school by agreeing to go for a ride with a car full of boys who make an unplanned detour, chances are she won’t beat one of them to a pulp with a tennis racket.
Although that may be a good skill to have.
So while Hollywood can sometimes take transplant stories over the top, there’s a nugget of truth to every story, no matter how small that nugget may be. And the east coasters turned Phoenicians in these films' audiences just might recognize someone they know on the big screen, and feel a little nostalgia for “home”.
Not saying you’ll see yourself up there of course, maybe just a friend you left behind. One whom you hopefully left alive and kicking.
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