out of 4
All-Reviews.com Movie/Video Review
Casa De Los Babys
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marcia Gay Harden|
Director: John Sayles
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: September 2003
Genres: Comedy, Drama
|*Also starring: ||Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Rita Moreno, Bruno Bichir, Angelina Pelaez, Vanessa Martinez, Juan Carlos Vives, Miguel Rodarte, David Hevia||
Review by Dustin Putman
2 stars out of 4
Writer-director-editor John Sayles is one of the most fascinating
filmmakers working today. Each of his films is completely different
from the last, while retaining many stylistic and narrative similarities.
The stories are usually loosely molded, giving a documentary air to
their proceedings, the ensemble is large and not always connected,
the pacing is deliberate and absorbing, and the setting is changed
from film to film. 1992's south-set "Passion Fish," 1997's Mexico-based
"Men with Guns," 1999's Alaskan "Limbo," and 2002's Florida-set "Sunshine
State" are just a handful of intoxicating highlights in Sayles' ambitious
repertoire. What is ultimately so admirable about Sayles is that he
makes the films he wants to make, challenging himself in the process,
and, without any ties to a particular studio, finds distribution once they are complete.
John Sayles' latest film, "Casa de los Babys," follows the same basic
blueprint as his aforementioned efforts, interweaving a substantial
cast of characters in a politically-charged story about six American
women who have come to live in a South American motel while they await
the finalizations of their planned adoptions. Eileen (Susan Lynch)
stays to herself more often than not, with dreams of a beloved kinship
she will share with her child. Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is an exercise
fanatic still dealing with the three miscarriages she has suffered
in the past. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young, wealthy D.C.
native who can't conceive and seems to be growing distant from her
faraway husband. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is a New York editor who quickly
loses interest in every man she meets. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is
a recovering alcoholic who has found salvation through Christianity.
And Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is a pampered know-it-all whose daily
routine involves lying to the other women and stealing from the motel.
What gradually becomes clear to the other five is that Nan isn't even
fit to be a mother, but will get one anyway based on the power she exhibits.
"Casa de los Babys" is John Sayles' most unsatisfying motion picture
since 1994's dreary Ireland fable, "The Secret of Roan Inish." At
95 minutesover a half-hour shorter than is the norm for the directornot
enough time is afforded to any of these six central characters in
order to develop them fully. They are characterized by one or two
traits as the movie progresses, and just as the viewer is starting
to get a handle on them the end credits arrive. It doesn't help that
there are so many other supporting characters and subplots struggling
for time, including the adventures of a homeless, illiterate 8-year-old
thief who carries around a children's book he is unable to read; an
unemployed native who can't find work and takes a chance on a lottery
ticket; a pregnant 15-year-old forced to give her unborn child up
for adoption; and a sullen young maid (Vanessa Martinez) at the "casa
de los babys" who also once had to give her baby away. The characters
are intriguing peripheries, each one with the potential to be explored
but none given the chance to do so. As for the subplots, they are
so skimmed over they hardly make any impression at all.
Credit the reliable performers for making the most out of their underutilized
roles. Most memorable are Susan Lynch (2001's "From Hell") as the
stable Eileen, who shares a deeply felt connection with Vanessa Martinez
(1999's "Limbo") despite the extreme language barrier between the
two; Lili Taylor (2000's "High Fidelity") as the forthright Leslie,
who brings humor and poignancy to her scenes; and Marcia Gay Harden
(1998's "Meet Joe Black") as the self-centered Nan, who suggests a
level of vulnerability under her steely veneer. The most wasted potential
comes from Daryl Hannah's (2002's "A Walk to Remember") Skipper, whose
depression over the loss of her babies is barely focused on at all.
And although fine, Mary Steenburgen (2001's "Life as a House") and
Maggie Gyllenhaal (2001's "Donnie Darko") are given next to nothing
to do despite having clearly fascinating backstories.
"Casa de los Babys" has a grander scope than Sayles was either able
to afford or invest enough time in developing. He clearly has a lot
to say, not only about the laws of adoption in South America but also
on the state of the country as a whole, but he never manages to convey
these subjects with any sort of sharp-eyed clarity. The irony-filled
final scene, in which Eileen and Nanarguably the most fit and unfit
parents-to-be out of the six womenawait meeting their adopted babies
for the first time, is effective but leaves things distractingly open-ended,
and not in the same startlingly brilliant way "Limbo" did. We got
to deeply know the characters in "Limbo" and were personally invested
in their plight, and the sudden conclusion of that film was all the
more effective because of what it suggested but never felt the need to show.
In the case of the characters in "Casa de los Babys," they remain
clumsy snapshots rather than three-dimensional human beings. This
time, with the closing credits comes a distinct and unshakable feeling
of disappointment and missed opportunities. John Sayles is much better
than what "Casa de los Babys" would have you believe, and there is
no doubt he will reclaim his status as one of today's most courageous
and talented filmmakers again.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman
Buy movie posters!