"My little army of souls," a sympathetic nun coos to a room full of infants. "Ready to fly to distant lands." Only it's not quite that simple, at least for the Americans who want to help with the flight.
Six of these ready-to-adopt women, hunkered down in a south-of-the-border hotel that is nicknamed, in a charming bit of cross-culturalese, "Casa de los Babys" are the main focus of John Sayles' ambitious new film. That might be enough characters for most writer-directors, but not for John Sayles.
"Babys" is Sayles' 14th feature, and he has used several of them to do involving, almost sociological investigations of the cultures of specific regions, for instance "Lone Star's" Texas, "Limbo's" Alaska and "Sunshine State's" Florida.
The combination of Sayles' proclivities and "Babys" being shot in Mexico (standing in for an unnamed South American country) makes it inevitable that, as in "Men With Guns," he will want to investigate Latin culture. Which translates into some half-a-dozen additional subplots involving local people of various ages and social classes.
Sayles is gifted enough to make all these individuals at least of peripheral interest, and "Babys" is not without its fine moments, including ones that give some performers the best scenes of their careers.
But in a 95-minute film, short for him, everyone can't be made interesting enough. The difficulty "Babys" has is that the film's all-important balance, the equilibrium that has to be maintained between the dramatic and didactic, is not what it should be. What this means is that there is often not enough space for all these personalities to truly play out. They tend to become types rather than people, representatives of classes and points of view more than individual human beings.
We meet the Americans one by one as they come down to breakfast at the hotel run by the hard-nosed Señora Munoz (the veteran Rita Moreno) where they are all staying to fulfill the country's residency requirement for adoption. As we eavesdrop on the women eating, shopping and sight-seeing, gossiping about each other and worrying if they'll get approved to take a baby home, we get a clearer idea of who each of them is. Specifically:
Leslie (Lili Taylor) is a tough New York editor (is there any other kind?) who the other women suspect is a lesbian because of her contempt for "yuppie scum";
Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is the heart of the group, someone always willing to think the best of everyone;
Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the youngster, a vulnerable young wife married to a wealthy Master of the Universe, commodities trader division;
Eileen (Irish actress Susan Lynch), very definitely on a budget, has strong feelings about the bonds of family;
Skipper (Daryl Hannah), a masseuse and fitness fiend, is as often as not off running or swimming to stay in shape;
Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), is a world-class whiner, a small-minded woman with more issues than sense whom no one likes having around.
Though, like the Americans, Señora Munoz dislikes Nan the most, she has trouble with all the women. "They want to be mothers," she says, "and they can't take care of themselves." Part of her irritation comes from having a layabout son who still believes in the Revolution and considers his mother's guests to be imperialist parasites.
Not all of the film's local characters have the leisure for this kind of disdain. One of the busiest is Asuncion ("Lone Star's" Vanessa Martinez), a maid at the Casa who also functions as a single parent for her two younger siblings.
The exchange of heartfelt, extended monologues between Asuncion and Eileen, each speaking a language the other doesn't understand, is matched in intensity by a devastating monologue by Skipper (likely the most dramatic scene in Hannah's career) in which she reveals the complex personal history that's led her to want to adopt.
It's these kinds of deeply emotional moments that we both cherish and wish "Casa de los Babys" had more of. While we'd like it if the film had managed to be less schematic, had succeeded in fulfilling its sociological aims in more humanistic terms, we're willing to cut it slack because it sometimes seems no one else is even trying.
'Casa de los Babys'
MPAA rating: R for some language and brief drug use
'Casa de los Babys'
Does a 95-minute John Sayles film leave enough time for its seven or eight main characters to be humanized?
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