2 June 2010 | Chris Knipp
Sixty degrees of separation
Obviously orphanhood is a painful condition, as is lifelong separation from one's child. Adoption is a momentous undertaking, potentially beautiful for all concerned but fraught with risks of heartbreak. These are worthy but dangerous subjects for a movie; and despite good intentions and formidable actors, this one goes badly astray, though it's not without powerful moments. 'Mother and Child' is one of those manipulative stories about angst-ridden folks in LA whose lives turn out to be intertwined. It's not surprising to find it was produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, though word from Cannes says his own latest film, 'Biutiful,' is straightforward and linear. Iñárritu himself directed the compellingly gritty and loosely connected multi-strand movie 'Amores Perros,' then veered into pretentious pseudo-complexity with more multiple-layered and polyglot storytelling in '21 Grams' and 'Babel.' The popularity among ambitious filmmakers of this genre can be partly traced to the success of the 2004 Paul Haggis film 'Crash ' (also set in a tormented and multi-ethnic, multi-racial Los Angeles), which won three Oscars, including Best Picture, pushing out the more worthy, but less successfully button-pushing 'Brokeback Mountain.'
'Mother and Child' has a fine cast headed by Naomi Watts (who was in '21 Grams', and so is a veteran of orchestrated anomie), Annette Benning, and Samuel L. Jackson, and includes strong performances by Cherry Jones as a kindly nun, Kerry Washington as an eager young women bent on adoption, and Jimmy Smits as one of several implausibly saintly people. These stand by at the right moments, patiently awaiting their opportunity to make everything right again, for the moment when all the chess pieces fall into the right pattern and the game is over.
It's hard to describe the movie in detail because its success as suspenseful entertainment hinges on the way its three or four main plots come together. If we knew ahead of time how and why the various narratives were going to mesh the film would seem flat and hopelessly manipulative -- which, in fact, it is, manipulative anyway. It's not so much flat as cloyingly sentimental and at the same time, in certain moments early on, decidedly creepy. What I can tell you is that a better title for the early stages of the movie might be Neurotic Women. One theme is estrangement, another, adoption. Motherhood seems alternatively a pathology, and a condition hopelessly longed for and never achieved. The character played by Annette Benning is cruel, abrupt, almost pathological. So is Naomi Watts, who is also coldly manipulative. Some of the things that Naomi Watts' character does early on seem downright evil. Annette Bennings' character is so hostile and unpredictable it's hard to imagine her holding down a steady job; but plausibility is not the long suit of a screenplay bent on moving its plots and characters in neat patterns. These two people played by Benning and Watts, who represent a lonely mother and a lost child, are meant to hold our attention, but in order to justify our respect or interest they have to undergo sudden changes the scenes can't justify.
Jackson is an attorney who heads his own very successful law firm. In his first scene he is made to hire Watts, whom he declares impressive. The only trouble is that her record also clearly shows she is unstable, uncommitted, and isolated. The head of a viable firm would think twice before hiring such a person. Then in the days that follow she rapidly seduces him. To analyze the details would not only give away the surprises, but is also embarrassing, because so much is fudged to make the pieces fit together; and besides unconvincing events, there are dropped stitches as time goes on. Things get more obvious and ham-handed when a blind girl appears on the roof of Watts' latest apartment building (she is constantly on the move) for the sole purpose of having Meaningful Conversations. And yet despite all the nonsense, some of the scenes are heartrending, especially one involving Kerry Washington. When Benning turns sweet and lovely, her scenes seem pasted in from another picture. It would have been nice to watch her again in the lightweight, but utterly charming 'Being Julia,' one of her recent triumphs. She is always fine, but she does manic better than depressive. All these fine actors deserved better material. They're good, but they can't make this movie plausible or hide the writer-director's heavy, obtrusive hand.