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Diaper Dreams

John Sayles drags six would-be mothers down to Casa de los Babys.


You gotta love John Sayles. No, really -- you gotta, or else a mob of indie-minded cineastes will club you into submission. Sometimes it's easy to comply, as with City of Hope and Sunshine State, both astute portraits of uniquely American class, race and real estate struggles boiling down to the burning question of identity. But sometimes Sayles loses perspective, leading to the Northern Exposure-gone-haywire high jinks of Limbo or the plodding, overrated Lone Star.

Such is the case with Casa de los Babys. Here, the self-appointed spokesman for the world's women and people of color labors over social consciousness but delivers an affably waffling soap opera. The movie boasts plenty of salable features -- it's about women and food and babies and race -- but its meandering nature squanders a lot of potential. Sayles' narrative and characters spark emotional intrigue only about half of the time, leaving his unusually curt 95-minute outing feeling much longer than it actually is.

The titular compound is a tourist hotel in an unnamed Latin American country where visitors fulfill tedious residency requirements while awaiting receipt of surplus newborns. Among the waiting women are Irish-Bostonian Eileen (Susan Lynch, The Secret of Roan Inish), who desperately pines to nurture her inner child in the form of a real child, and health-nut Skipper (Daryl Hannah), whose reptilian abs piss off the other women. Snotty urbanite Leslie (Lili Taylor) orders vegetarian Skipper a bacon cheeseburger for lunch. Fancy that: Taylor playing another irritating bitch. Such range. The most prickly and intriguing of the women is Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), whose overt racism (wanting to nab a baby before it starts speaking whole sentences in Spanish) and ardent desire for a child add up to a bona fide emotional freak show and the finest and most challenging performance herein.

Sayles happily punches hot buttons in Casa, from the incensed revolutionaries who wander the grounds to the kids who kick around the dusty streets, sniffing paint fumes, unsuccessfully bumming pesos and illustrating just what happens when the world is cluttered with too many babies and not enough thinking adults. Even crabby Leslie gets to engage some thought, calling her "last resort" form of Judaism "ethical culture," which adds to the feeling that everyone here is seeking not only babies but also new or thoroughly revised identities. In terms of thematic ambition, it's a tough film to fault.

In its execution, though, the movie alternates between ersatz spirituality and annoying jabber. Perhaps because Sayles is once again intensely close to his material, he can't see a way to take these characters he's lovingly shaped -- the film is based on his short novella -- and give them interactions more interesting than shared loitering. That said, though, his gift for character depiction and dialogue as well as his keen rendering of social clashes flourish as ever, and you at least gotta like John Sayles for that.

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