Writer-director-editor John Sayles is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today. Each of his films is completely different from the last, while retaining many stylistic and narrative similarities. The stories are usually loosely molded, giving a documentary air to their proceedings, the ensemble is large and not always connected, the pacing is deliberate and absorbing, and the setting is changed from film to film. 1992's south-set "Passion Fish," 1997's Mexico-based "Men with Guns," 1999's Alaskan "Limbo," and 2002's Florida-set "Sunshine State" are just a handful of intoxicating highlights in Sayles' ambitious repertoire. What is ultimately so admirable about Sayles is that he makes the films he wants to make, challenging himself in the process, and, without any ties to a particular studio, finds distribution once they are complete.
John Sayles' latest film, "Casa de los Babys," follows the same basic blueprint as his aforementioned efforts, interweaving a substantial cast of characters in a politically-charged story about six American women who have come to live in a South American motel while they await the finalizations of their planned adoptions. Eileen (Susan Lynch) stays to herself more often than not, with dreams of a beloved kinship she will share with her child. Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is an exercise fanatic still dealing with the three miscarriages she has suffered in the past. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young, wealthy D.C. native who can't conceive and seems to be growing distant from her faraway husband. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is a New York editor who quickly loses interest in every man she meets. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a recovering alcoholic who has found salvation through Christianity. And Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is a pampered know-it-all whose daily routine involves lying to the other women and stealing from the motel. What gradually becomes clear to the other five is that Nan isn't even fit to be a mother, but will get one anyway based on the power she exhibits.
"Casa de los Babys" is John Sayles' most unsatisfying motion picture since 1994's dreary Ireland fable, "The Secret of Roan Inish." At 95 minutesover a half-hour shorter than is the norm for the directornot enough time is afforded to any of these six central characters in order to develop them fully. They are characterized by one or two traits as the movie progresses, and just as the viewer is starting to get a handle on them the end credits arrive. It doesn't help that there are so many other supporting characters and subplots struggling for time, including the adventures of a homeless, illiterate 8-year-old thief who carries around a children's book he is unable to read; an unemployed native who can't find work and takes a chance on a lottery ticket; a pregnant 15-year-old forced to give her unborn child up for adoption; and a sullen young maid (Vanessa Martinez) at the "casa de los babys" who also once had to give her baby away. The characters are intriguing peripheries, each one with the potential to be explored but none given the chance to do so. As for the subplots, they are so skimmed over they hardly make any impression at all.
Credit the reliable performers for making the most out of their underutilized roles. Most memorable are Susan Lynch (2001's "From Hell
") as the stable Eileen, who shares a deeply felt connection with Vanessa Martinez (1999's "Limbo") despite the extreme language barrier between the two; Lili Taylor (2000's "High Fidelity
") as the forthright Leslie, who brings humor and poignancy to her scenes; and Marcia Gay Harden (1998's "Meet Joe Black
") as the self-centered Nan, who suggests a level of vulnerability under her steely veneer. The most wasted potential comes from Daryl Hannah's (2002's "A Walk to Remember
") Skipper, whose depression over the loss of her babies is barely focused on at all. And although fine, Mary Steenburgen (2001's "Life as a House
") and Maggie Gyllenhaal (2001's "Donnie Darko
") are given next to nothing to do despite having clearly fascinating backstories.
"Casa de los Babys" has a grander scope than Sayles was either able to afford or invest enough time in developing. He clearly has a lot to say, not only about the laws of adoption in South America but also on the state of the country as a whole, but he never manages to convey these subjects with any sort of sharp-eyed clarity. The irony-filled final scene, in which Eileen and Nanarguably the most fit and unfit parents-to-be out of the six womenawait meeting their adopted babies for the first time, is effective but leaves things distractingly open-ended, and not in the same startlingly brilliant way "Limbo" did. We got to deeply know the characters in "Limbo" and were personally invested in their plight, and the sudden conclusion of that film was all the more effective because of what it suggested but never felt the need to show.
In the case of the characters in "Casa de los Babys," they remain clumsy snapshots rather than three-dimensional human beings. This time, with the closing credits comes a distinct and unshakable feeling of disappointment and missed opportunities. John Sayles is much better than what "Casa de los Babys" would have you believe, and there is no doubt he will reclaim his status as one of today's most courageous and talented filmmakers again.