I Like It Like That is the movie that should have had the title Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life). This comedy is about the crazy life of Lisette (Lauren Velez), a young, black-Hispanic woman living in the Bronx. Her husband, Chino (Jon Seda), is in jail. Her son, who's barely old enough to tie his own shoes, is being courted with job offers by the local drug dealers. Her brother, best friend and confidant (Jesse Borrego) is a preop transsexual.
Chino's mother (Rita Moreno) dislikes Lisette and rejects the kids from her son's marriage because they aren't of "pure Hispanic blood." The grocer's seductive daughter (whom Chino's mother prefers) is pregnant, and claims that Chino is the father. The grocer offers to pay his bail money if Chino will give the child his name. Desperate to raise the money to spring Chino herself, Lisette bulls her way into a job with a Latino-oriented record company. Lisette then arouses the suspicions of her gossipy neighbors when she's seen (quite innocently) getting out of the fancy car of her white boss (Griffin Dunne) at 4 in the morning. Word of this incident gets back to Chino in jail, and he, enraged, accepts the grocer's offer. It sounds like the plot of a melodrama, but I Like It Like That is a comedy, occasionally wistful, but fast-paced and funky overall. It's the feature debut of Darnell Martin, who is being touted as the first woman of color to direct a major-studio film. It's an impressive first movie--energetic and brisk, with unexpected but credible plot turns, characters who are individuals without being cute eccentrics, and really spirited acting. Martin, who also wrote the script, is abetted enormously by Velez, whose endearing, cliche-free performance as Lisette drives the film. Velez effortlessly makes Lisette believable as, simultaneously, a tough, streetwise hustler and a hopeless romantic, honest and decent without being a goody two shoes. Almost as good is Jon Seda as Chino. He, too, makes coherent the paradoxes of personality to which lower-class urban life give rise. Chino's both a loving father and preeningly macho fool at the same time. Dunne is also amusing. His role is a cliche--the weaselly record exec--but he plays it smoothly, and he is, at least, not tiresomely made into a villain.
The cinematography, by Alexander Gruszynski, is rich and atmospheric, and Martin's camera work has a graceful confidence. What's most striking, perhaps, about Martin's work here is her ability to maintain a tone--a more-or-less lighthearted one--throughout the film, even when the mood shifts from rowdy situation comedy to relatively realistic seriousness. This is no common talent.
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If I Like It Like That made any claims on its audience as deep art or sociology, it would be necessary to point out that it's basically a Horatio Alger story. But while Martin doesn't gloss over environmental observation--there are some sharp scenes depicting how ghetto life militates against privacy--she does so without didacticism or bathos. In this film, at least, Martin's an entertainer, and she seems to like it like that.