- Rated R
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All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by David Medsker
f the idea of a female-driven drama that is essentially “Crash, with Babies” sounds off-putting to you, that’s understandable, especially when you consider that several of the characters in “Mother and Child” exhibit traits that could be described as monstrous. These people are not easy to love, but they are fascinating to watch. The key is that writer/director Rodrigo Garcia doesn’t just saddle his characters with personality defects; he provides the reasons for those personality defects.
When Karen (Annette Bening) was 14, she got pregnant, and gave the baby up for adoption. Not a day has gone by that she doesn’t regret that decision, and Karen even writes letters to her lost child as a means of dealing with her grief. That child, now in her late 30s, is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a hot-shot lawyer who also happens to be a sexual predator, and her latest target is her new boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) want to start a family of their own, but she can’t have children. They look to adopt the child of 20-year-old college student Ray (Shareeka Epps), but Ray won’t let just anyone have her baby.
That synopsis covers maybe half of what happens here. It doesn’t mention Paco (Jimmy Smits), Karen’s new coworker whose harmless attempts at friendship are met with stinging rejection. There is Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), who handled Karen’s adoption and is now handling Ray’s. There is Karen’s housecleaner and her young daughter, whom Karen despises because they have the mother/daughter relationship that she wants. There are lots of moving pieces here, and like most movies that try to unite an unrelated group of people, it labors here and there. Did Elizabeth really need to not only seduce her married neighbor but take steps to make sure he didn’t get away with it? Would a real-life Karen have been able to evolve the way she does here? Most importantly, couldn’t Garcia have given the men some less flattering personality traits as well? He’s pretty one-sided when it comes to dispensing the blame. The worst things you can say about Paco and Joseph is that one is too nice and the other is too afraid to stand up to the women in his life. Paul, meanwhile, probably shouldn’t be sleeping with Elizabeth, but she looks like Naomi Watts. It’s hard to hold that one against him.
Bening hasn’t had a role like this in years, and she makes the most of it. It would have been very easy to make Karen a one-note harpy, but Bening is marvelous even when she’s at her worst. Watts has never touched anything this cold, and the way she slips into Elizabeth’s skin so effortlessly is a little unsettling. Kerry Washington is the biggest mess of the movie, but that’s also the point. Lucy is the greenest of the bunch, and not at all prepared for what life is about to throw at her, which makes the speech she gets from her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) so gratifying.
There is a great argument for nature vs. nurture in “Mother and Child,” since Elizabeth is basically a more destructive version of Karen despite having never known her. Of course, had Karen kept Elizabeth and raised her, would either of them have turned out the way they did? This is one of many questions Garcia’s movie poses, and while the third act nearly drowns in misery and despair, Garcia redeems himself before it’s over by following the adage that when one door closes, another opens. Basically, the moral of the story is life’s a bitch and then you die, so enjoy as much of it as you can, no matter the circumstances. For a movie this complex, its underlying theme is rather Zen.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
The movie made just under $5 million worldwide (and over three-fourths of that were overseas), so the extra goodies are understandably slim on the DVD for "Mother and Child." There are three deleted scenes, though they total just under four minutes and, while watchable, it's understandable why they landed on the cutting room floor. The only other bonus features are two featurettes, one on the making of the movie and the other on the universal themes the movie explores. "The Kids Are All Right" is grabbing Annette Bening all of the headlines, but her work here should not go overlooked.