REVIEW: Superb Cast Salvages Bland Mother and Child
A women's picture in a mold that's more and more idiosyncratically his own, with Mother and Child Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) poses a number of intriguing questions about the nature of maternity, only to obscure them with a gloss that is equal parts sentiment and subtle but specious politics. That he pulls off an involving film anyway is largely a credit to his superb main cast, a trio of interlinked characters played by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington. Each grapples in some way with her femininity and its connection to what her womb has either done or failed to do, and while all of these women are types, the actresses dignify them with the emotional force of their performances.
The connection between Karen (Bening) and Elizabeth (Watts) is inferred, not obvious: the former is the subject of the film's opening, a teen pregnancy montage; the latter is the grown daughter whose loss the now 50-something Karen has spent her life lamenting. A nurse with a damaged relationship to her own mother, Karen's type is "brittle" -- in fact all of these women are variations on a bone-snapping theme, but Karen is their queen. Compulsively deflective when she is not simply being horrid, Karen has locked down every loving part of herself, making her tentative romance with a new co-worker (Jimmy Smits) about as trying as courtship can get.
Elizabeth is Karen 2.0: cold and self-contained, but with the drive and the body to really make a go of it. Deeply cynical about the power of her beauty, when she's not climbing the legal ladder she's throwing a leg over some poor sap, smugly confirming how easily men will betray their wives or their better judgment. Soon after starting at a new firm she has her boss, wonderfully played with a combination of bemusement and vulnerability by Samuel L. Jackson, right where she wants him. Evincing perhaps the most goal-oriented orgasm ever committed to film, Watts is unnervingly hot as the inscrutable temptress; she contains and then detonates everything you need to know about Elizabeth in a display of domination that's both tender and mocking.
The connection of the first two women -- who live in the same city but have apparently never heard of Internet databases -- to Lucy (Washington), a married woman desperately looking to adopt, becomes clearer as the film (and Elizabeth's sudden pregnancy) progresses. Washington does well with the least rewarding role, facing off with the strident teenager (Shareeka Epps) auditioning her to be the mother of her child with rattled equanimity: Who could presume to be mother to someone else's child, anyway?
The growing ubiquity of anonymous fertilization, international adoption, and surrogate mothers would seem to clash with the latest wave of ancestry-obsessed television and the first generation of in vitro kids desperately hunting down their biological parents. If "it's time spent together that counts," as several characters here remark, why do so many seem to beat back so ceaselessly toward their roots? Garcia, despite creating yet another vibrant canvas for his actors, deflects the burden of this toughest and most modern of familial conundrums, offering instead the bland, regressive ideal of motherhood as not only redemptive but required.