Recalling the enthusiastic buzz that has dogged Mother and Child, and especially its three central performances, ever since the film's 2009 Toronto Film Festival debut, I would be tempted to indulge in a cliché: "those people all saw a different movie than I did". Except that it's not true, for I know exactly what movie they saw that leads them to praise Annette Bening and Naomi Watts for giving the best performances of their respective careers, and to praise writer-director Rodrigo García for his sensitive, pitch-perfect study of regret and the ties of family and blood (which are not always the same thing). Indeed, those people saw the same movie I did; but I have a strong suspicion that they slept through the first two-thirds of it.
The film opens with a scene of two fourteen-year-olds about to have sex; jumps to a scene of the girl (Alexandria Salling) crying in agony as her newborn child is taken away, and then jumps 37 years further to show that girl, Karen, all grown up and played by Bening as a singularly miserable woman who lives with her sickly mother (Eileen Ryan); she is particularly angry at the easy, loving relationship her mother has with their maid (Elpidia Carillo) and the maid's daughter (Simone Lopez). The fourth scene then shows 37-year-old Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) taking a job at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm run by the genial widower Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). Not for a very, very long time does García come right out and tell us that Elizabeth is Karen's long-lost daughter, rather trusting that we can infer from the shape of the editing that this is the case, and it's the last moment of understatement to come for damn near all of the film.
Mother and Child suffers from a screenplay that simply does not understand, in any way, shape, or form, the idea of "subtlety". I have not seen in quite some time a motion picture of any real pedigree in which the writer altogether lacks the grace to suggest a situation without banging us over the head so heavily that the subtext becomes supertext, and the text comes across like neon lettering that shrieks "THIS IS WHAT'S HAPPENING DO YOU GET IT" over and over again until you get a migraine. So we have scenes like Elizabeth's interview with Paul, including the fantastic moment when he asks her to describe herself, and it goes something like this:
Elizabeth: "I am a bitchy careerist who was so emotionally damaged by being abandoned by my birth mother at the moment I came into this world that I have never since been able to relate to another human being on any level - except, possibly, for my dead adoptive father - and I have rather devoted my life to the perfection of my career as a dead-eyed legal genius than trying to behave with any shred of social nicety."
Paul: "Splendid! When shall we start fucking?"
I wish to God I was joking, but I'm really not. I'm hardly even exaggerating.
So it is that two-thirds of Mother and Child is taken up by the most baldly-expressed melodrama about two broken women: Elizabeth is icy and perfect and professional, Karen is terrified of love and spits like a cobra at anyone who even daydreams about being nice to her. It's not clear how much we can blame the actresses for this, because a lot of that is deeply buried in the characters; but certainly, neither of them helps much: Watts in particular is such a Betty One-Note throughout that by the end of her second scene I was desperately anxious to be watching just about any other person in the whole world (Bening at least has the decency to underplay her character's hard edges except when forced to do otherwise).
García compounds this by structuring the film with a leaden, metronomic device that switches from one woman to the next with clockwork regularity. This has at least one benefit: it means that we always know that in a matter of minutes, we'll be back to the story of Lucy (Kerry Washington), a desperately flustered young woman trying to adopt with her stick-up-the-ass husband Joseph (David Ramsey), because of her inability to conceive. Recognisably human, suffused with a lightness that nicely sets off the situation's tragedy, the Lucy plot is everything the Karen and Elizabeth plots refuse to be, with their overdetermined, arch writing. It's so ferociously trite, with every musty, campy cliché in the book trotted out for a bow, that in no time at all I had a terrible case of the giggles watching the ostensibly sad, lacerating drama; this was at its worst during a ghastly sex scene between Elizabeth and Paul, in which she basically comes out and says "I must deprive the sex act of all spontaneity or joy, for I am an emotionally stunted control freak", and the person I was sitting with leaned over and said, "Do you think it will cut to [Character X] dying," and it did exactly that all of ten seconds later, and I had to bite my hand, hard, to keep from breaking up laughing.
And then, a bit more than half-way through, Mother and Child suddenly becomes a completely different movie, heralded by an unexpected jump forward one year (that leaves some important character moments in the ether), and all of a sudden Elizabeth and Karen are rich, textured characters - gone is Bening's autopilot bile-spitting and Watts's dagger stare, replaced by a sensitive, nuanced depiction of two women torn apart by loss and uncertainty. In this new movie, Lucy turns into a chorus of sorts, commenting upon and slowly starting to leach into the other women's stories. All of a sudden, the film is emotionally complex and true, and indeed, Bening and Watts are suddenly as brilliant as you could hope for, although I still think Washington has the best-in-show honors. Even the camera, which García had previously directed with studied indifference and blandness, becomes an active participant in the film, as our spatial relationships with the characters begin to have serious ramifications for how we relate to them.
Even this second half has some issues: that García understands adoption solely as a vehicle for making people feel a withering sense of loss is problematic at least, as is the suggestion that motherhood is the single rewarding aspect of being a woman. Plus, the ending is so contrived it makes your teeth ache. But most of this neo-Mother and Child earns every turn and emotional gut-punch; it is an honest, and noble look at human sorrow that is as moving as anything likely to come out this summer.
Here's the question, then: does the excellence of the second part make up for the rancid, unintentionally campy opening? Does the fact that I now know that Karen and Elizabeth become rich, troubling figures forgive how much time they spent as cartoon banshees? Not for me, though perhaps others would be more forgiving (it seems in fact that plenty of others are so forgiving, they don't even note the film-wrecking problems I have with the first hour and change). Goodwill is earned, not given, and if a film is going to spend that much time sucking, a great ending just isn't as impressive. There's a lot to love in Mother and Child, but it's buried beneath too much ludicrous crap to make it worth the effort to ferret it out.