Diapers and red tape

Casa de los Babys

The luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jennifer, a young woman with a shaky marriage who hopes to adopt a child, in John Sayles’ new ensemble film <i>Casa de los Babys</i>.

The luminous Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jennifer, a young woman with a shaky marriage who hopes to adopt a child, in John Sayles’ new ensemble film Casa de los Babys.

Rated 3.0

Writer, director and editor John Sayles likes to roll up his sleeves and plow up sprawling, fertile canvases of characters like some sort of pioneering homesteader. That’s certainly what he does in his latest but not greatest film, Casa de los Babys, which features six Western women with vastly different backgrounds and personalities who share the same dream: Each wants to adopt a baby.

The women are all staying in the same hotel in an unnamed Latin American country while awaiting the completion of their paperwork and the arrival of their infants. They talk to and about each other in various groupings during meals, beach excursions and shopping trips. And time feels nearly frozen as their moment of instant motherhood slips from day to day into weeks and even months.

Casa de los Babys is a tender, moderately satisfying essay on fate, the haves and have-nots of the world, parental responsibility, opportunism, and modern family dismemberment and values. It widens its target area from a transitional community of females into the surrounding foreign culture but only marginally deepens its thrust. This shotgun approach to the material gives us plenty on which to chew, but I came away from the table wanting a much more robust serving.

Sayles is a “people person” who has traipsed through such varied milieu as a baseball scandal (Eight Men Out), a coal miners’ strike (Matewan), civic turmoil (City of Hope) and life in Florida (Sunshine State) as he has checked mankind’s pulse for signs of life and duly noted any irregularities. Here, these irregularities are many and sometimes severe but not without a sense of hope that the patient may live.

Casa de los Babys feels more cluttered at times than focused, and it’s salted more with flashing ideas and signposts than surprises. Sayles is an excellent writer (my three favorite scripts of his being The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star and Passion Fish), but he ends this film too abruptly for my taste. He also both literally and figuratively pens some of his characters into a corner without allowing them to stew provocatively in their own juices, but he did successfully prod me to think about and feel the topics at hand.

The ladies here are indeed a mixed bag. A Jewish publications editor (Lili Taylor) from New York has attitude to spare and plans to raise her child as a single parent. There’s talk that she may be a lesbian. One lady (Daryl Hannah) is a health-food and body-fitness proponent who has lost three children of her own to genetic defects. One (Susan Lynch) has money problems. Another (Marcia Gay Harden as the pushy, ugly American) lies about her past and obsessively steals from the maid’s cart. There is talk that she may be a sociopath who shouldn’t be trusted with a child. The youngest of the group (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a shaky marriage, and another (Mary Steenburgen) is the clan’s emotional anchor.

The performances are strong and finely tuned. Rita Moreno plays the hotel proprietor who tries to keep her oily, lazy terrorist son busy. “First the government wanted to kill him,” she says. “Now I do.” And he gripes about their capitalistic customers, who “are too busy making money to procreate.” The subplot also involves a pregnant 15-year-old girl, a beach-boy gigolo, a sad maid who once gave up a child for adoption and street kids who hustle for survival.

Casa de los Babys is one of Sayles’ more cinematic efforts. It is a cousin to his Men With Guns, which is also set in a nameless Latin American country and includes the plight of an abandoned boy. A slow-motion scene of a kid in clown makeup juggling balls to capture the attention of motorists stuck in traffic is particularly memorable. So is a shot of the sadness emanating from the eyes of a woman as she peers through a slit in a hotel window blind. The village is a circus-like zone of graffiti, posters and murals, and the hotel is a soothing study in pastels.

The film talks about children needing a father, bad parenting giving birth to yet another generation of bad parents, the Catch-22 that shadows world illiteracy and poverty, issues of religion, and such questionable beliefs as children being the glue that holds a marriage together. It is a story of a corrupt legal system and social service (“I will do my best, but I promise you nothing,” says one attorney) and temporary limbo amid permanent despair. “You could adopt a ticking time bomb,” warns the maid-cart pillager when talk turns to the pitfalls of adoption. Or, even more frightening, you could be adopted by a cocked pistol.