Casa de los Babys
2003, R, 95 min. Directed by John Sayles. Starring Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Rita Moreno, Lili Taylor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Susan Lynch.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 10, 2003
The bottom line is that any John Sayles movie is a movie worth watching and a movie that’s more substantive and thoughtful than most any other film out there. Sayles has a history of creating rich characters who are both products of and architects of their environments, whether they be an alien Brother From Another Planet or a resident of the Sunshine State. Sayles is always interested in seeing how individuals interact with their environment and culture, which, when working at its best, produces films of uncommon humanity and compassion, but when misfiring produces characters and situations that are schematic types and emblematic structures. Recent films have also seen Sayles mucking around with our narrative expectations, mostly denying customary gratification with such things as the abruptly inconclusive conclusions of Lone Star, Limbo, and Sunshine State and the oddity of the all-Spanish language film Men With Guns. In Casa de los Babys, Sayles almost seems to be working against himself and his audience. He takes what could have been a potentially great movie, casts it with a collection of some of the finest actresses working today, and then strands the whole thing upriver without a plot. The movie is essentially a situation in search of a movie, a sketch pregnant with promise but empty upon final delivery. It’s so heartbreaking it ought to be a crime, for in this movie Sayles and the actresses have created indelible characters who refuse to fade away as quickly and easily as the movie does. The setup is fantastic: A group of women have individually come to the same unnamed Third World country to adopt babies and wait out the red tape together in the same hotel. We get to know something about each of the women and the particular reasons for each one’s childlessness. We come to care about them and form opinions about which ones are the most deserving or will make the best mothers. We want to know more and imagine, along with the women, the futures of their children. Sayles also presents numerous scenes of the indigenous people and their family relationships, so that there’s always an unspoken comparison between U.S. mothers and those of the Third World. Then, just as we’ve become deeply connected to the characters, Sayles pulls out the rug from under the audience and leaves the characters and the film in one of his favorite spots – limbo. In some ways, Casa de los Babys is Sayles’ meditation on motherhood: the various reasons why women want to engage in this activity. Yet in the end, it seems like the projections of a childless man, trying to get a handle on something that seems mysterious and unclear to him. What Sayles gives us is a jumble of ideas and stunning performances that never coalesce into a satisfying movie.