A Vietnamese orphan adopted, along with his older sister Mai (Lauren Tom), by a black California couple, Harold (Paul Winfield) and Dolores Williams (Mary Alice), in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, the grown-up Dwayne has clearly taken on the mannerisms and behavior of his adoptive culture, though that "funky" demeanor comes across in Catfish as more a "Fresh Prince" construction of the black experience. Lo, who also directed Catfish plays Dwayne like an Asian J.J. Walker -- he talks in a rapid-fire street patois peppered with slang and contorts his face into carnivalesque "whatchyutalkin' 'bout" expressions reminiscent of the sitcom vaudeville of "Diff'rent Strokes."
When Mai tracks down and arranges for their Vietnamese mother, who's spent time in a prison camp, to reunite with her long-lost family, Dwayne becomes prickly with resentment, unable to accept Thanh (Kieu Chinh) as his real mother. Dwayne's adoptive mother Dolores is just as piqued by the intrusion of the new mom in town and launches a full-scale assault on this interloper, who sprinkles Vietnamese hot sauce on her cooking to kill the flavor and drives a wedge between her and her adopted children. Never have adults behaved so ludicrously and unsympathetically as in Catfish, in which the venomous jealousy between Dolores and Thanh over their grown children's affection culminates in a ridiculously crude "Dynasty" bout of hair-pulling and blouse-ripping between the two middle-aged women. Even the silken-voiced, gentle Mary Alice comes across as an intolerant shrew in this silly cartoonish yarn.
Lo has a mildly interesting gimmick on his hands in Catfish, but his film is trivial and his characters are petty and one-dimensional. Like a sitcom engineered to modulate moments of sentiment with hysterical comedy, Catfish tries to inject "big issues" into its story, but it keeps railroading any potential content with garish, outsized yuks. Every tearful confession and emotional climax (generally accompanied by an emotional geyser of stringy, sugary music) is immediately followed by a bubble-bursting gag, as when a somber-faced Harold expresses sympathy over Thanh's husband's death in the prison camp to which she retorts, "Camp? He died choking on a fish bone!" Lo is obsessed with packing his film with jokes -- an oppressive wallpaper of one-liners and hysterical highs and lows that begin to feel suffocating as the film progresses.
One of the film's more obnoxious efforts to "lighten the mood" is a M. Butterfly subplot involving Lo's roommate Michael, who, it turns out, is dating a transvestite. The circumstance allows for several occasions in which Dwayne heaps homophobic invective on his clueless roommate crowing, "Oh maaan, you a fag!" This "comic relief" is especially galling and stupid, considering Lo's effort in flashback sequences to demonstrate the petty racism and cruelty of Dolores and Harold's black friends, who are offended by the Williams' adoption of an "Oriental." But apparently in Lo's thinking, nasty, insinuating jokes about homosexuality are allowable, while Asian-bashing is not, and the need for tolerance only extends to Dwayne's "own kind."
As Dwayne, Lo has a plastic, animated face seemingly tailor made for the effusive, broad comedy of television, as is his propensity for gags that come on like Mack trucks barreling down a two-lane road. Films about culture clash may seem like the perfect vehicle for comedies with an underlying social message, but this sort of storyline is also one of the most predictable and prone to saccharine sweetness. It is therefore hardly surprising when the impossible-to-bridge gap between the Williams' African-American and Thanh's Vietnamese cultures is finally mended in Catfish's predictable denouement. That packaged, feel-good ending makes the rest of the film feel like a complicated stalling device meant to postpone the inevitable. Catfish is at every turn an obvious freshman effort from a director who has seen his share of prime-time TV but has some difficulty mastering even its crude, shallow tone.