Casa de los Babys

September, 2003, Drama

Directed by:John Sayles

Starring:Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen, and Lili Taylor

John Sayles is arguably the most important independent director in cotemporary American film, having provided audiences with a dozen movies that span more than 3 decades. His oeuvre captures fictionally what contemporary America is really like- much as the legendary Fred Wiseman does in the documentary format. From Matewan to last year's Sunshine State, Sayles examines, with sharp eye and ear, how Americans understand themselves; the illusions he shatters make him one of our best social critics. In Casa, he examines six American women sharing a Mexican hotel as they await permission from the local government to adopt babies. His cast is superb - - Marcia Gay Harden, (Pollack) Darryl Hannah, (Northfork) Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Secretary) Mary Steenburgen, (Sunshine State) Lili Taylor, (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Susan Lynch (Waking Ned Devine) - - and they play the parts Sayles wrote for them with unnerving vividness; Harden's bitchy insecurity plays off Hannah's stoicism, Steenburgen's low-key fatalism off Taylor's quirky urban disillusion. Gyllenhaal's one-sided cell-phone conversation with her imperious husband conveys a lifetime of heartbreak in a single devastating scene. These are real women, emotional warts and all and fascinating to meet--but having created them, Sayles doesn't give them anywhere to go. The auidence meets them at a crossroad in their respective lives, (a patented Sayles starting point) but leaves them an hour a half later with their respective dilemmas unresolved. Watching the final credits roll, I felt jilted; with such interesting characters, why couldn't this brilliant storyteller have provide his audience with some resolution to their respective quests, or failing that, make some pertinent observations about the implications of cross-cultural adoption? 

Sayles teases of course, as he always does, suggesting his own point of view in the dialogue given his characters, but I've never left one of his films feeling so let down--he seems at a loss here to come to any conclusions, and remains content to simply present these vividly sketched women, as adrift at the end of the film as they were at its beginning. That may be a satisfying accomplishment for the director, but it's hardly sufficient for his audience. The ambivalence of the adoption process itself is presented from the every point of view--the authorities, the women, the businesses sustained by these perspective mothers' long waits-even from the attendants at the maternity hospital; but all these superb components don't add up to anything, and the director's indecisiveness is downright annoying. 

Verdict? A fabulous wind-up, but a pitch way outside the strike zone.    

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