- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

Each new John Sayles film is like an oasis for audiences weary of the MTV-inspired visuals that threaten to make screenwriting a lost art.

The writer-director luxuriates in the written word, content to let dialogue alone carry entire scenes.

In “Casa de los Babys,” Mr. Sayles’ 14th film, his caustic verbiage isn’t enough to tell the whole story. All the pontificating in the world can’t make up for the fact that we don’t care enough about his very flawed heroines.

The film follows a group of six American women stuck waiting to adopt children in an unspecified Latin American country. Frustrated by red tape, they talk, swap gossip and peck away at one another in passive-aggressive fashion. Each, after all, is competing for a small pool of available children.

Each suspects the process is tied up, in part, so they’ll stay longer and spend more money at the various restaurants and shops nearby. None seems to appreciate the culture around them, so consumed are they with their own thoughts and dreams.

All well and good for dramatic purposes, but what’s missing is a rooting interest in the characters.

Even when Daryl Hannah’s hard-bodied Skipper shares how she lost two children to birth defects, it isn’t enough to rouse our interest. Disconnecting viewers from the characters’ pain might have been Mr. Sayles’ way of focusing on the cultures and inherent injustices at play.

An intellectual victory, perhaps, but an emotional failure.

The women dwelling in the titular “Casa” represent a range of white privilege. Marcia Gay Harden comes trailing the most cash, and her arrogance is proportional. She also is the most complex and interesting character of the lot.

Lili Taylor’s New York cynic hardly seems the ideal mama, while the promising Maggie Gyllenhaal is a wealthy D.C. dweller trapped in what seems like a disastrous marriage.

The writer-director savors the small cultural touches: a loving close-up of local vegetables being sliced for dinner, shots of children playing games in public, the poor but hard-working neighbors performing their chores without complaint.

Some of the film’s observations prove revelatory.

One of the adoption center’s caretakers ticks off the reasons, to herself and a room full of babies, why their lives would be better in the United States. One can’t help but feel for the woman knowing that all her tender care, in the eyes of some, can’t compete with the riches of another country.

The film’s most poignant scene captures Eileen (Susan Lynch) confiding her motherhood fantasies to one of the adoption clinic’s maids. The maid, in turn, recalls how she had to give up her own daughter years earlier. Yet the two don’t speak each other’s language, and they can only dimly sense the turbulent outpouring of each other’s emotions.

“Casa de los Babys” may strike a deeper chord with female audiences who may project some of their own maternal instincts onto the film’s six leads. Mr. Sayles’ eye for cultural nuances has never been sharper, but he squanders a terrific cast by letting his focus drift elsewhere.

**1/2

WHAT: “Casa de los Babys”

RATING: R (Mature themes and adult language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by John Sayles. Produced by Lemore Syvan and Alejandro Springall. Director of photography, Mauricio Rubinstein. Production design by Felipe Fernandez De Paso.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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