DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
CASA DE LOS BABYS (director/writer/editor: John Sayles;  cinematographer: Maurizio Rubinstein; music: Mason Daring; cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Jennifer), Daryl Hannah (Skipper), Marcia Gay Harden (Nan), Mary Steenburgen (Gayle), Rita Moreno (Sra. Muñoz), Lili Taylor (Leslie), Susan Lynch (Eileen), Vanessa Martinez (Asuncion), Pedro Armendáriz Jr.(Ernesto), Bruno Bichir (Diómedes), Juan Carlos Vives (Búho), Miguel Rodarte (Oscar), Martha Higareda (Celia); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alejandro Springall/Hunt Lowry/Lemore Syvan; IFC Films; 2003-USA/Mexico-in English and Spanish, with English subtitles)

 
"Even an uneven Sayles film is superior to most such Hollywood dramas."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In indie filmmaker John Sayles' 14th film he covers his usual important liberal themes and does his Limbo nonending resolvement again, but this time there's no sense of urgency into the territory he's exploring and his open-ended fragmentary ending doesn't ring as true as it does in his more major works. "Casa" is about motherhood, babies, and class and cultural disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Set in an unnamed South American country (filmed in Acapulco) where six white yanqui women who seem to be over 30 are staying in a luxury hotel awaiting to adopt an orphanage baby as soon as the red tape is cleared. The impatient women have been here as long as two months, and the focus of the film is on them getting to know each other, their ideas about motherhood, their dreams, and how all of them are considered rich and privileged by the economically pinched locals even if that isn't so. The teenager locals who give up their babies for adoption are pictured as the hotel maids and members of the impoverished class, as Sayles in an evenhanded manner doesn't disparage either side for the choices they make but instead through a lot of talky scenes tries to see why each party does what they do. 

Sayles also tunes into what the locals are doing. The 15-year-old Celia's (Higareda) more economically secure parents force her to go to Miami to get an abortion. There's also an ongoing story about the invisible people these Americans never take notice of. The main focus is on three homeless kids who steal, can't read, don't go to school, sniff paint in a paper bag, wash car windows, and live on the street without parents. Their future seems hopeless. The economic conditions are also hard for those with skills, as economic opportunities are very limited and even low paying jobs are scarce. Dreams of hitting the lottery seem to be the best hope of getting rich for those who have all but given up in the system. The owner of the posh hotel where the yanquis are being pampered, is the cold-hearted Sra. Muñoz played by Rita Moreno. She doesn't like the rich yanquis, but sees no difference making money off them or rich South Americans. Her son is a big talking drunk, an ex-con who is now allied with leftist terrorists. He would like to throw the yanquis out of his country by force, if necessary, but he's ineffectual in everything he does. His hatred is shared by some of the corrupt local bureaucrats who are upset that babies are their country's biggest exports, as they take their anger out by making the yangui women wait unnecessarily.

The six women are lazily sketched into stereotypical figures and seem to be used by Sayles as a matter of convenience to add weight to his seemingly dry lecture about the poor condemned to their fate by chance--as the film at times seemed more like a sociological grad school treatise than a melodramatic film experience. It is limply paced and there seems to be no true plot and the characters are never fully drawn out so that we understand the predicament they are in that makes them come to a foreign country to adopt a baby. We know little more about them by the film's end than we do upon first meeting them. There were just too many characters and too little time given to each of them, so all we get are thumbnail sketches about their character from their snappy conversations and bitchy gossip sessions over meals. The most vociferous gal is the cartoonishly drawn heavy, a midwestern crab, pictured as an acid-tongued witch, Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), whom it is never made clear why she steals inexpensive toiletries off the maid's cart or wants a child. The film allows us room to assume it's only as a trophy to complement her "maybe" status marriage (even in her marriage, we're not sure if her hubby is an engineer or a high school chemistry teacher). As the designated Ugly American, she cynically believes everyone could be corrupted and bought, and Sayles seems to go out of his way to prove that she could be right. Nan's opposite is a sincere but not well-off Irish immigrant living in Boston, Eileen (Susan Lynch), who wants a child for companionship and to give her life more meaning. Eileen is the best mother most unfortunate girls who give up their child for adoption could hope for. Leslie (Lily Taylor) is a hip Noo Yawker and possible lesbian, who has written off men but pines to bring up a baby girl with doses of reality and tough love. She's the only one of the group who is capable of giving birth, but can't see herself in a relationship. Leggy New Age physical fitness nut and masseuse from Colorado Skipper (Daryl Hannah), had a miscarriage and two other babies who died after birth because of deformities. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a genial, fluent in Spanish, born-again Christian, Southerner, who is a recovering alcoholic and who tries to bring all warring sides together. Wide-eyed, cordial, and extremely rich Jennifer (Gyllenhaal) from Washington, D.C., needs to adopt as she thinks a baby will save her troubled marriage.

Sayles’ intellectual sensibility and ability to keep the film from falling into a sandtrap of caricatures and political polemics as he explores the economic landscape make it all worthwhile, though it is still one of his minor films. It never sustained the passion throughout for what he was trying to spit out about the great economic divide and cultural differences between countries, except for a few scenes. The best scene is of the earnest hotel maid Asuncion (Vanessa Martinez) conversing with Eileen, the only one of the group who looked upon the workers as real people with feelings, as Eileen explains why she wants to adopt and the maid counters as to why she had to give up the child she had at 14. This was powerful drama. To add to that, Eileen can't fully translate what the maid told her, but they both understood the universal language of motherhood. Sayles was trying to point out without laying down pat answers, that people from other cultures and classes are not that different, it is mostly the luck of the draw that gives people more of an opportunity to succeed. The Americans regard the baby as a vital commodity in their way of life that they must have to keep up with the American Dream, while the South Americans have too many children (viewed as natural resources) and to support them is more of a hardship than a blessing. 

Even an uneven Sayles film is superior to most such Hollywood dramas. Though the ensemble cast all give strong performances, it is hard to dig deeper into the more internal issues that drive people to think they can be saved by having a baby and not by looking more closely at themselves. Without knowing more about the characters, it is hard to feel much passion for their plight. Nevertheless, this is an honest look at rich yanquis taking advantage of those in a Third World country, as they use their money to get what they want. Not many other filmmakers choose to go down this noncommercial road, and have enough nerve to leave off with an existential ending instead of a shocking payoff. Sayles' little joke might be that the baby the one racist member of the group gets to adopt, is the one with the brownest skin.

REVIEWED ON 10/13/2003     GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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