Sayles's Baby Blues

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2003

EVEN THE most wildly supportive of John Sayles's movies are likely to feel shortchanged by "Casa de los Babys," the independent filmmaker's foray into the world of gringo adoptions in Latin America. After introducing us to a world of possibilities -- make that several worlds of possibilities -- he seems to pull the plug, as if he's suddenly had it or just plain ran out of time. But the shortchanging isn't just in the abrupt conclusion. It's in the story leading up to it. For all his patient, accumulative storytelling, Sayles yields little that doesn't feel trite or overly schematic.

Six women -- mostly Americans between their early thirties and late middle age -- have come to this unnamed Latin American country to adopt children. They are wise, alcoholic Gayle (Mary Steenburgen), uber-bitchy Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), wisecracking Leslie (Lili Taylor), earnest Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), New Age-healthy Skipper (Daryl Hannah) and sweet-natured Eileen (Susan Lynch). They're all expecting a little red tape, a little rubbing of the palms, to get what they need, but nothing too drawn out. How wrong those expectations turn out to be. Their patience gets increasingly strained as they cool heels in a motel near the orphanage. The days drag on, which gives them -- and us -- ample screen time to get acquainted. Too bad these women (and most of the characters around them) are so one-dimensional.

Nan, a Yanqui imperialist who also steals hotel soaps by the fistful, is so arch, Cruella De Vil would shake her head in dismay. And Leslie's quippy nature seems to have been created by a team of second-rate sitcom writers. The locals are only slightly deeper, thanks to Rita Moreno's confident performance as Señora Muñoz, the motel owner who acts politely toward her customers but secretly despises them.

Sayles may be one of the few independent filmmakers to have an uncomplicated morality, as well as an honest desire to accurately portray other cultures, but he's stuck with a tin ear for subtlety. These Americans seem to be either materialistic, brazen or culturally ignorant. Other earnest themes abound -- bureaucratic corruption, nature-vs.-nurture arguments, and so forth -- but they feel tired and inevitable. Sayles pokes at these cliches and secondhand ideas and tries to turn them over thoughtfully, but he doesn't seem to find much under them.

Perhaps the best dramatic exchange is between a local maid, who speaks no English, and one of the visitors, who doesn't know a word of Spanish. They exchange heartfelt feelings about motherhood and children without understanding each other, somehow connecting in spite of everything. This is the kind of on-the-money encounter we could have enjoyed more of, but Sayles is too busy searching for deeper truths to notice.

CASA DE LOS BABYS (R, 95 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity and brief drug use. Landmark's Bethesda Row, Cinema Arts Fairfax and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

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