I want to like John Sayles movies. Time was when I couldn’t resist them, though it may have been Sayles’s long muscles clad in jeans fairly bulging with a social conscience that I really couldn’t resist.
One of the original indie auteurs (as well as one of the original ’70s lefty hunks), Sayles still labors to fund and release his movies, never having landed a consistent distributor though he’s now written, directed, and edited 13 films since 1980’s Return of the Secaucus Seven. He’s penned scripts for everyone from Spielberg to Roger Corman; acted in both his and others’s films; directed music videos for the likes of working class hero Bruce Springsteen; published scores of short stories and novels; and won the prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.
Sayles often crafts ensemble movies, one of the hardest film formats to truly finesse, and he always—whether it be covertly or overtly—tackles the type of social justice issues that generally send filmmakers—so-called indie and Hollywood alike (and the difference betwixt the two has grown as arbitrary as that between Coke and Pepsi)—running to the high hills. A quick rundown of typical Saylesian topics includes: governmental, real estate, union, and big business corruption; the politics of sexuality, race, gender, class, sports, religion, environmentalism, and even politics itself; and always, always, the daily concerns consuming working people both domestically and abroad.
Casa de los Babys is Sayles’s latest, cheerless interrogation of yet another very worthy subject: international adoption. I know Sayles is fighting the good fight, that he’s working hard. I know it because watching this movie feels like hard work, too. Struggling to transcend my annoyance with the film’s paper-thin plot devices and characters-as-cogs is hard work.
Officially, of course, there’s much to recommend about Casa de los Babys. As with all Sayles movies, particularly his ensemble films, a range of characters represents the many pros and cons of this topic—the complicated issues of birthing, child-rearing, and the age-old process of reducing children to commodities. Like his 1997 film Men with Guns, Casa is set in a gorgeous, unnamed South American country whose chief exportation, as one denizen only half-jokes, is its babies. The story follows five white U.S. women (the locals call them yanquis) as they loll in a local motel run by Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno, bustling about in an impressive series of pencil skirts) waiting to adopt brown babies from a local orphanage. It also introduces Muñoz’s ex-con son, Diómedes (Bruno Bichir), who performs the hotel’s custodial work as he mumbles about cultural imperialism and smokes dope; chambermaid Asunción (Vanessa Martínez), who gave up her own child so she could continue to raise her orphaned siblings; Ernesto (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.), earnestly seeking employment wherever he can find it; Celia (Martha Higareda), an upper middle class pregnant teen pressured by her mother to give up her unborn baby to the local agency; and, of course, a host of others.
It is to Sayles’s credit that all the Spanish-speaking characters actually speak Spanish, subtitled in English, rather than the broken English plaguing many other recent movies about Latin American countries, such as the misguided Frida. It is also to the director’s credit that much of what characterizes his finest work is also in evidence in this film: lush natural scenery, an unobtrusive but moving soundtrack, a range of important social questions to consider, and, not in the least, a tremendous cast peopled by stars who, as they’re barely earning more than scale, presumably just hunger for socially conscious, well-written scripts, and direction.
Unfortunately, in this case, they may have done better to have kept their agents looking. Famous for handing his actors two-page bios of the characters they’re to portray, perhaps Sayles should have handed Casa de los Babys audiences such bios, also.
The late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once called Sayles the “thinking man’s shallow writer-director,” and there’s something to that. His best movies, though still burdened with broadly drawn characters and plots, are sympathetic and specific enough to work anyway. But whereas in his ensemble movies of the past very few characters were drawn in simple black and white, Sayles shortcuts his Casa de los Babys characters unforgivably. Most notably, he creates Nan, a racist, classist, lying kleptomaniac who’s downright implausible in her unilateral fucked-up-ness. The very able Marcia Gay Harden does her best with Nan, curving her mouth in an angry smirk, flattening her eyes to render them beady. Harden knows how to present her slightly meaty body as either slatternly or highly erotic, depending on what’s called for in a given role: for this one, with her tight-hipped lumbering, she literally embodies the ugly American, though she can’t rise beyond this stereotype because Sayles doesn’t provide her with the means. Instead, he feeds her such lines as “we must help [the children] defeat their natural disabilities,” causing her to strain visibly against the limitations of the writing itself.
As do all these excellent actors—Lili Taylor as Leslie, a grim New York editor who may or may not be a lesbian but certainly has had it with men; Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jennifer, a poor little rich girl in a bad marriage; Mary Steenburgen as Gayle, a born-again recovering alcoholic. The only actors who don’t push their performances are the ones who seem to have fallen into a dreamlike trance, such as Daryl Hannah as Skipper, a woman who’s conceived three defective births (you know that from the grim set of her mouth and her obsessive-compulsive pursuit of physical health), and Eileen (Susan Lynch, previously seen in Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish), who delivers a terribly maudlin speech in what must be the worst scene in the film.
In it, Asunción confesses to Eileen about the little girl she was forced to give up but Eileen fails to understand her Spanish, launching instead in English into an almost interminable description of her dream day with her adopted daughter while Asunción’s (and the audience’s) eyes glaze over. The moment is forced, even embarrassing, and what’s worse is that it seems intended to function as the emotional arc of the film—a clumsy symbol of the disconnect between the two cultures that these newborns are going to have to bridge. What this scene highlights instead is the disconnect of Sayles to his audience, his failure to flesh out characters fully enough to sustain any of our empathy.
Even ensemble movies must rotate around a central axis that’s more than a mere political issue. Sayles’s best movies always conveyed how the "personal is political" by literally personalizing those political issues—putting a face to border dynamics, for example, by depicting a star-crossed love affair in Lone Star (1996), or by localizing the racial and civic politics in a Northeastern city through the device of a Shakespearean-style father-son conflict, as in City of Hope (1991). At each storyline’s core churned a gripping personal tale heightened by sociopolitical circumstances; his tried-and-true plots, however hackneyed, moved you in their passion. But in Casa de los Babys, as in 2002’s Sunshine State, the story limps along without a real climax or denouement, reducing its characters and their plights to mere mouthpieces for various political positions, paragraphs in what boils down to filmic essays.
Why do some filmmakers with similar aesthetic and political proclivities continue to produce strong work while Sayles increasingly seems to have stalled out? Although his films have not recently met much critical or popular acclaim, Spike Lee still delivers compelling movies—painting his last movie, 25th Hour (2002), for example, with a crayola-bright palette and substituting a drug dealer in his last day before incarceration for post-9/11 New York itself. In contrast, Sayles seems to be reduced to crafting pamphlets rather than actual films, whereas Hitler’s late filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, knew that even propaganda had to be beautifully executed.
Sayles simply may have grown tired of “fighting the good fight” for an audience who increasingly isn’t even familiar with the parlance of, let alone the impulse for, radicalism. Lee’s films, though increasingly somber, don’t project the world-weariness that Sayles’s do. After all, Casa de los Babys doesn’t feel like a particularly good idea that just failed in its implementation. Rather, this movie looks and feels like the dutiful labors of a good man who should have vacationed at this gorgeous mythical land rather than filmed a movie at the site.