It might not be saying much to call “Mother and Child” the most suspenseful motion picture about adoption currently in theaters. But that the movie stands out among the dragons and flying supermen of the spring season doesn't take anything away from its often thoughtful meditation on the hazards of pregnancy and child rearing in contemporary American life.
An ensemble film in the style of “Magnolia” and “Crash,” the drama tells the interrelated stories of multiple women (and a few men) dealing with the different ways adoption has affected their lives (all in the Los Angeles area, as usual for such films).
Karen (Annette Bening) is an older woman caring for an aging mother while trying to forget how she forced her to give up her only child for adoption when Karen was only 14. That woman is now 37-year-old Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ambitious lawyer whose lack of biological parenting has evidently hardened her heart. Also in the mix are Lucy (Kerry Washington) and Joseph (David Ramsey), a young couple unable to get pregnant on their own, trying to present themselves in the best light to Ray (Shareeka Epps), an unwed pregnant girl interviewing prospective adoptive parents jockeying for her unborn.
After identifying the injured parties, “Mother and Child” proceeds to examine their wounds. Karen is emotionally thwarted, unable to show kindness to her maid, date a co-worker (Jimmy Smits) or connect with her enfeebled mother. Elizabeth is a driven but emotionally cut-off careerist and selfish loner, indiscriminately (and often maliciously) bedding men, including her boss (Samuel L. Jackson). Lucy and Joseph are conventional by comparison, simply dealing with marriage problems as a result of their struggle to find a child, but the movie soon piles on reasons for them to be increasingly unhappy.
Like most movies of this sort, “Mother and Child” balances character study and melodrama with the impulse to turn coincidence into a powerful story. That all these disparate stories are predetermined to come together by the end — and you know that they will within the first 30 minutes or so of the story — tells you that what they add up to won't always resemble reality.
Writer and director Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”) has been making a career out of such projects. This outing shows the strengths and limitations of the type in equal measure, making drama that can be compelling in parts, ridiculous in others.
A talk-heavy movie, its characters are apt to say things alternately profound and insipid, sometimes one right after the other. Describing her conventional neighbors to her boss, Elizabeth says, “It's impossible to know what they are; they're too busy reinventing themselves to everyone else's liking.”
The originality and incisive truth of that statement is enough to provoke mild discomfort. Later Elizabeth responds to her boss' retreat from their affair this way: “You don't seem like the type of man to be scared by something scary.” All that provokes is a big, “Huh?”
There are other moments, especially early in the film, when it feels like a pioneer in capturing certain emotional responses. Bening, who gets many of the film's better moments, goes against her type playing an aggravating, sandpaper personality whose face is frequently a battleground of competing emotions.
“Mother and Child” is a little too long, however, to hold up under its own weight. What starts off as insightful and absorbing eventually strains and becomes wearisome. As the coincidences pile up, so do the ironies, intentional and otherwise, the movie occasionally slipping into self-parody and camp.
Because she's so tough, Elizabeth refuses a doctor's recommendation for a C-section: “I'm gonna push her out myself.” Ray, the unwed mother, is a stern taskmaster, denying numerous couples adoption and grilling Lucy and Joseph in an interview. She's intended to be seen as unique and deep, but comes off more like a loaded “Cosby Show” character. Why does a strong-willed, confident young woman feel the need to give up her baby?
Likewise, what are we supposed to learn from all this adopting and suffering? The recent disaster in Haiti revealed some problems globally, but if there's something universal or even topical to be gleaned from “Mother and Child,” it is difficult to discern. The movie is a fertile character study that unfortunately fails to give birth to anything broader in scope. (R) 125 min. ***