In an unnamed South American country undergoing economic woes, six North American women of vastly different backgrounds band together as they wait out adoption red tape in a posada that has become known locally as "Casa de los Babys."
Writer/director John Sayles once again employs his formula of showcasing a regional area through its societal strata to lessening results. "Casa de los Babys" is a simpler disappointment than "Sunshine State," with its obvious political statements and shallowly drawn characters.
Sayles's North American six-pack is composed of a variety of types. Daryl Hannah ("Northfork") is Skipper, a new age Coloradan obsessed with fitness. Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock") is Nan, a Midwestern shrew. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen, "Sunshine State") is a recovering alcoholic. Leslie (Lili Taylor, "High Fidelity") is a single New York publisher the rest of the group whispers is a lesbian. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal, "Secretary") is a well to do New Englander trying to save a floundering marriage with a child. Susan Lynch ("From Hell") is Eileen, an Irish native living in Boston who is scraping pennies to adopt her child.
Leslie and Gayle bond and interact with the rest of the group less. They also have little to do with the local culture, with Gayle revealed as an alcoholic at a local AA meeting in a brief sequence and Leslie brushing off the advances of young stud Reynaldo (Guillermo Iván Dueñas) on the beach. (Reynaldo is reworked into the plot as the unknowing father of the baby of fifteen year old Celia (Martha Higareda) who is being pressured to give up her child for adoption.) Leslie acts as the group's educator and translator, but Taylor has little opportunity to give her character any background. Steenburgen may as well have been cut as Gayle exists simply to exclaim how worldly Leslie is in comparison.
Skipper and Jennifer pair up and have an encounter with a local unemployed architect who asks for four dollars to act as a tour guide (the most touching subplot). Gyllenhaal's Jennifer is a naif who has tearful conversations with her husband on her cell phone. Hannah has one of the film's two best scenes when she recounts the loss of three babies while massaging Jennifer. The actress tugs some of the only true emotion from Sayles's curiously uninvolving film. Equally good is the underrated Lynch who conjures up a magical moment of motherhood describing her future daughter to hotel maid Asunción (Vanessa Martinez, "Lone Star"), a woman who has previously given up a daughter for adoption. Eileen is the purest character, making an ill-afforded gift of a book to an illiterate street kid who was about to rob her. Nan is Eileen's opposite and it is through her that we encounter the running of the hotel and the bureaucracy of the adoption process (the two are linked via Rita Moreno's hotel owner and her brother Ernesto (Pedro Armendáriz Jr., "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"), Nan's local attorney). Gay Harden is a cliched obnoxious American, although Sayles attempts to give her some depth with kleptomania and childhood abuse that seems sickeningly sure to be repeated. Moreno, in her few scenes, gives a good account of a woman from the upper class now forced to labor for her livelihood and put up with a no account son who dabbles in anarchy, infuriated that his country's children are a commodity but doing nothing constructive in response. Sayles also counterpoints his adoption tale with a group of homeless kids, but it adds up to little but the obvious.
"Casa de los Babys" assembles a great pool of female talent to tell us that the children of poor countries are adopted by the rich which its remaining residents continue to suffer, and does so with little emotional involvement. It's a curiously flat film, little more than a female gabfest.
Six women journey south of the border in search of the babies that are not available to them in the United States. But, adoption is not all that much easier where they are and, though they live in relative comfort, they must, like the refugees in "Casablanca," wait and wait and wait at the "Casa de los Babys."
Director-writer-editor John Sayles has had an eclectic career that began with a minor splash in his pre-"Big Chill" ensemble film, "Return of the Secaucus Seven." He then established himself with his quirky sci-fi flick, "The Brother From Another Planet." Since then he has performed with near brilliance with "Lone Star" and with solid story-telling skills in "Eight Men Out," "Passion Fish," and "Limbo." His films have always shown his imprint, though some are accepted more than others. "Casa de los Babys" is probably the biggest misstep of his long career.
The main problem I have with "Los Babys" is, though cast with a talented group of actresses, there is no real dimension to the main characters. Marcia Gay Harden, as Nan, is a bigoted, opinionated thief and liar who is quick to criticize but the last person who should do so. Mary Steenbergen, as Gayle, is the most mature of the group, kind hearted but with her share of woes - a brief scene with her attending an AA meeting (in Spanish) is pointedly done to give her the dimension that the character lacks. The character fails to be more than a symbol. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jennifer, is in an obviously troubled marriage where, she naively thinks, the introduction of a baby will make everything right and whole. Lili Taylor's Leslie is a single woman (a lesbian, it is speculated) who wants a child but not a man. Daryl Hannah is exercise-obsessed Skipper who, after too many miscarriages, desperately wants a child of her own. Susan Lynch is a young Irish woman, Eileen, with obvious limited funds but, after two fertility operations, sees no other alternative to attaining motherhood.
For the most part, these characters that you meet and learn about in the beginning of "Casa de los Babys" are pretty much the same come the end. Sure, there is some development with Lynch's Eileen and Hannah's Skipper, but little for the rest. Fortunately, the smaller roles and secondary characters help to give the dimension to the film not provided from the lead ensemble. Rita Morino, as the mistress of the Casa, comes across as a strong, stern and resourceful person who must cope with running the place, dealing with the government bureaucracy and treat with her "guests," particularly the always demanding and complaining Nan. Vanessa Martinez, as one of the Casa's maids, also gives a strong performance as a girl who has had to raise and care for her younger siblings and was, once, the mother to one of "los Babys."
Sayles, who has had ample experience with large ensemble casts doesn't seem to have his heart in "Casa de los Babys." The writing is perfunctory as it introduces the main characters then leaves them to fend for themselves as he explores minor points like a young street urchin shown some kindness by Eileen. We follow the homeless boy, gift in hand, runs off to huff paint with his adolescent friends; or, the matron of the nursery who sings lullabies to her wards and explains the real facts of the babies' lives to a young nurse-nun. When the background is more interesting than the main story, there is a problem. I give it a C-.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links