hick veneer of happening music, multiethnicity, tough hood attitude and sexual frankness gives a hip feel to what is actually an old-fashioned and conventional story of a bickering family in “I Like It Like That.” Debut feature by Darnell Martin, reputedly the first black American woman to write and direct a film for a Hollywood major, displays plenty of energy and an adeptness at staging scenes vividly. It should find a commercial niche on the basis of its colorful, warmhearted look at one family’s struggle to hang together in a rambunctious community.
Except for a few excursions to other parts of New York City, story largely stays put within a block of 167th Street in the Bronx, a racially mixed area where the teeming street life is portrayed as volatile, contentious, friendly in an aggressive way and always potentially dangerous, as represented by a memorial mural to a cop recently killed there.
Officer was the brother of Chino (Jon Seda), who in the opening scene defines his Latin macho posturing by proudly timing his sexual endurance with his wife, Lisette (Lauren Velez).
But sex, no matter how prolonged, doesn’t provide much of a respite from the couple’s chaotic family life, which includes three unruly kids; Lauren’s aspiring transsexual brother, Alexis (Jesse Borrego); Chino’s critical mother (Rita Moreno) and constant financial problems.
Further complicating matters is the constant threat posed by Magdalena (Lisa Vidal), the local fox who is still hot for Chino and whose little child may be his.
Crisis is precipitated by a blackout during which Chino steals a stereo, landing him in the slammer. To raise the bail, Lisette tries to get a modeling gig but winds up an assistant to a record label exec (Griffin Dunne).
After some local boys stir up trouble by insinuating that Lisette is putting in overtime with her boss, Chino, once free, takes up again with Magdalena, prompting Lisette to have an affair for real in revenge. Misunderstandings reach a head equal to any “I Love Lucy” episode, but sweet conclusion makes for a feel-good fade-out.
A serious sidelight to the romantic ups and downs concerns the raising of small kids in such a neighborhood. The absence of the father when he’s in jail, the hot-and-cold relationship of the parents, the lack of money and lure of the streets clearly do not engender feelings of security and respect in the children , and Chino’s attempts to physically discipline his son create further alienation and disobedience.
The poignance generated by this part of the story, aided mightily by the winning performance of 10-year-old Tomas Melly, give these scenes special distinction.
On the other hand, viewers not keen on listening to characters yell at each other at top volume, over important and trivial matters alike, might back off. Many of the attempts at humor are pretty limp; a running gag about Lisette’s lack of “tetas” far overstays its welcome, and the material relating to Lisette’s female-wannabe brother seems gratuitous and unfunny.
With her taste for the mobile camera and overhead shots, as well as the contempo street material, Martin shows an affinity with Spike Lee, although in most respects her sensibility feels more mainstream and conventional in the way situations are resolved in upbeat, undisturbing ways.
Aside from the immediate threat of drugs and insolvency, the greater ills of society aren’t grappled with here, and the emotional extremism of the characters is played as much for laughs as for drama.
Mostly unknown thesps throw themselves into their roles with abandon and emerge appealingly. Velez convinces as she manages to cope while being on the brink most of the time, and Seda is fine as the temperamental young father torn in several directions. Dunne is OK as the music exec, while Moreno has little to do as the haranguing mother.
Pic jumps to a strong urban beat, and tech credits are solid. While delivering nothing remarkable, Martin demonstrates that she knows her way around a camera and actors, and will certainly be heard from in the future.