The six lead actresses in “Casa de los Babys” appear convinced that by wearing little or no makeup, they’re playing real women. Not in this script they’re not. Maverick writer-director John Sayles’ ensemble drama — the story of six Americans sweating it out in a South American hotel while waiting to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and adopt babies from a local orphanage — is an entirely schematic treatise on maternity and conflicting cultures. A subject perhaps far more suited to documentary treatment, this numbingly earnest effort will be a laborious delivery for IFC.
A versatile if uneven filmmaker at his best with focused regional dramas like “City of Hope,” “Matewan” and “Lone Star,” Sayles has been less insightful on foreign soil. Like Ken Loach’s forays outside of Scotland and northern England in his unsatisfying Latino-themed films “Carla’s Song” and “Bread and Roses,” Sayles has faltered in similar territory. Both here and in the Central American drama “Men With Guns,” the director slips too frequently into didactic mode.
A woman filmmaker may have been able to draw more complex emotional truths from the issues raised concerning motherhood, family and conception vs. adoption. Even the questions that surface regarding First World exploitation of Third World misfortune are explored in fairly obvious fashion.
While their back stories are only superficially sketched, the six women are different personality types from different backgrounds. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young D.C. wife; Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is an uptight bigot, pathological liar and kleptomaniac; Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is a New Age masseuse touched by personal tragedy; Eileen (Susan Lynch) is an Irish transplant desperate to re-create the family warmth of her own upbringing; Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a meek religious type and reformed alcoholic; and Leslie (Lili Taylor) is a smart, straight-talking woman with little use for men.
Stuck in a strange environment — the film was shot in Mexico but is set in an unspecified South American country, where a period of residency is required before adoption — the women deal with slow-moving lawyers and live out their tense limbo state under the watchful, and not entirely benign, gaze of Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), who runs the hotel. Why not even one of these women has her husband along on what must surely be a significant step for any couple is never fully addressed.
The central idea of equating this period of waiting with the standard expectancy of pregnancy is an interesting one, and with a more subtle script could have made for challenging drama. But as the women voice their hopes, fears and conflicted feelings about the process, the dialogue feels less like spontaneous conversation than a point-by-point agenda Sayles wishes to cover.
Too often, scenes are assembled as a series of symmetrical opposites. Reflections on Catholic culture segue to comments on U.S. imperialism; discussions of the South Americans’ shortcomings as caregivers are followed by assessments of why the gringas can’t bear their own children. And the broaching of issues such as the choice to embrace or negate the adopted kids’ true cultural roots during their upbringing makes the film feel like a dramatically inert brochure.
Only one extended scene in which Eileen and a hotel maid who gave up her own daughter for adoption exchange personal information — respectively in English and Spanish, with each one only partially comprehending the other — has any real emotional weight. And Lynch — who worked with Sayles previously in “The Secret of Roan Inish” — arguably is the only cast member to summon some poignancy through a character whose inability to conceive has stripped her of self-worth.
Punctuated by montages of fat-cheeked Latino babies and scenes of homeless street kids, the low-budget film is shot in a serviceable no-frills documentary style using primarily natural lighting.