Mother and Child

Adoption drama begins well, but devolves into a soapy mess.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 18, 2010

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Two face, or a messed-up candlestick: The pairing of Samuel L. Jackson (left) and Naomi Watts is a high point in an otherwise mushy melodrama

Grade: C-

So let’s say your dad wins the Nobel Prize for literature. How do you follow that act?

It’s a long shadow, stuff like Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Rodrigo Garcia, son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, found his own path, carving out a tiny, highly regarded niche by specializing in upscale chick-lit, art-house melodramas that, while they don’t add up to much, still offer showy roles for brilliant, underused actresses and some gorgeous lighting.

Garcia scored accolades for his criminally little-seen Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her and Nine Lives, pictures that took women’s problems seriously while at the same time judiciously toning down the more absurd aspects of the glossy, moneyed milieu in which he works. Alas, his new film Mother and Child is foolish and ridiculous; it’s a shame, as it starts out so very promisingly.
The great, little-seen Annette Bening stars as Karen, a high-strung, deeply unpleasant woman still reeling over the fact that she got knocked up and gave away her child at the tender age of 14. The following 37 years have found Karen tending to her sickly mother (Eillen Atkins) and filling notebook after notebook with never-sent letters to that lost, long-adopted daughter. It might be tough to believe that after almost four decades this lady’s pain is still so raw, but Bening makes her character’s deeply private aching palpable, turning her bullying, crass behavior into a sort of sad-sack overcompensation.

On a separate, parallel story track, Naomi Watts plays Elizabeth, Bening’s abandoned daughter, who has grown up into an absolute shark. Irrevocably wounded by being left up for adoption as a tot, she’s now a cut-throat careerist and a vicious man-eater. Watts’ no-bullshit corporate lawyer wastes no time bedding and humiliating her new alpha-male boss (Samuel L. Jackson, giving a genuine performance and reminding you that he can act, as he does every couple years or so) while casually destroying the marriage of her next-door neighbors just because she can.

Watts is mean and prickly. Bening is no prize, either. In fact, long stretches of Mother make you wonder if the message of the movie is that the process of adoption turns women into vicious hags. But that can’t be right, can it? A better movie would have been content to finally allow these two in a room together, then leave us watching these bitter creatures sort out their resentments.

Alas, Garcia has something more melodramatic in mind. There’s a third story strand with Kerry Washington as a Type-A suburban wife, desperate to have a child but unable to do so. Thus, she must endure a rigorous cross-examination from Half Nelson’s Shareeka Epps, as a pregnant teen who has some very specific ideas about how her baby should be raised.

I’m not sure where this particular storyline is supposed to fit in, except for enabling Garcia’s Crash-y array of coincidences to fall into lockstep in the final, disastrous reels. Behavior gets replaced by contrivance, and both Bening’s and Watts’ characters are defanged and made cuddly by the presence of a child.

Garcia has done marginally well for himself over the years by writing sharp, idiosyncratic women’s roles, yet here he falls for that age-old trap of letting those women surrender their identities and become dull, suburban mommies. By the time a blind teenage girl showed up to offer the moral of the story, I was ready to vomit.

Still, there’s one great scene, in which Watts seduces Jackson and basically bullies him into her bed. The explicit sexuality is so frank as to be jarring—as is her casual cruelty—whispering orders and forcing him to sit still so she can have her way. As the scene revs up, we can see her flipping the power dynamic of their relationship. By the time it’s over, he’s been completely emasculated, and he’ll never be her boss again. She’s in charge now.

Mother and Child could have done with less soap opera and more commanding scenes like that one.

Director: Rodrigo Garcia

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