After 14 films, John Sayles is our great American populist director, but he’s never made a great movie. Eschewing familiar plot conventions, he prefers to situate a large, socially stratified cast of characters into a distinct community with a particular set of issues. His most successful films tend to hew close to genre conventions, such as the John Ford-Western influences of Lone Star and Matewan. But other films–such as Sunshine State and Men With Guns–have attempted to dispense with plot and character conflict altogether, with more mixed results. His latest film follows this latter course, and it’s a drama about foreign adoptions called Casa de los Babys.

With this film, Sayles is tackling some big issues, including the complex feelings women have about children, the morality and economics of the foreign adoption market and the power imbalance between the U.S. and its southern neighbors. Unfortunately, his script is so overloaded with characters and motives and speeches that the film never builds up dramatic momentum. (One gets the feeling, however, that Sayles is suspicious of such narrative devices or, as some might put it, basic storytelling.)

Nonetheless, the premise of Casa de los Babys is intriguing: Six white American women are living together in an unidentified Latin American country, serving out a lengthy residency requirement so that they might adopt children. Although the film was shot around Acapulco, Mexico, the country is left unnamed. (Mexico, in fact, allows very few foreign adoptions.)

Each of the women offer a particular viewpoint. Among them are resentful, unpleasant Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), enigmatic New Age beauty Skipper (Daryl Hannah), caustic, defiantly single New Yorker Leslie (Lili Taylor) and born-again 12-stepper Gayle (Mary Steenburgen). Most of the film takes place in a single day, and we follow the backbiting, gossiping and fleeting moments of female bonding that take place among the women. It goes without saying that all of these women have histories that will be revealed in due time.

Most of these back-stories seem better suited as director’s notes for the actors; the inevitable long speeches tend to bring the movie to a halt, most gratingly when two women–one American and one local–swap baby stories in their respective languages that are incomprehensible to the other. Still, some of the soliloquies work: Daryl Hannah is tremendously affecting in her big scene as she describes, in New Age lingo, the experience of losing her children. (Hannah’s performance in this film, coupled with her lurid turn in Kill Bill, should garner her some year-end comeback award mentions.)

Sayles does an effective job of capturing the stasis and ennui of the women’s lives, and it’s a relief to us and to them when he lets them out of the casa for a trip to the beach or the street market or, in one case, to an AA meeting. Most of the women are generally content to wait patiently for their babies, but Nan, fed up with “making donations to Our Lady of Perpetual Red Tape” decides to move aggressively and offers a bribe to her lawyer to expedite things. (Nan’s action here is the sole plot point of the film.)

Meanwhile, we meet some of the locals, including the owner of the adoption agency, Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), an elegantly faded woman who seems like a refugee from the gallery of Tennessee Williams’s tragic heroines. Senora Munoz has a Che Guevara-damaged nephew named Buho (Juan Carlos Vives) who accuses her of selling out their country’s soul to the hateful yanquis. In the adoption agency, a maid named Asuncion (Vanessa Martinez) sweeps the floors and grieves for her own child that she gave up to Senora Munoz. And out on the streets, a little boy hustles for a living, hoping to earn enough money to avoid sniffing glue to ease his hunger pangs.

Sayles’s ongoing interest in exploring a broad network of social and political relationships is most laudable but there are too many talky subplots for this 95 minute movie to comfortably hold. The characters are too obvious and too “on the nose,” scenes are awkwardly staged and too much expository information is given out in dialogue form. Certain thorny issues are raised clumsily–most egregiously when a street kid holds up a condom and says, “If our mothers had used one of these, we wouldn’t be here.”

Despite his artless didacticism, Sayles has never lost his integrity, or indeed, his sense of humor. Casa de los Babys is full of his tart one-liners, although they’re often spoken by characters who are unlikely to think of them. Also as usual, his use of music is spot-on; I particularly liked the ballad by the French-Canadian combo Lhasa that accompanies the opening credit montage of workers descending into the town at the beginning of another meager workday.

In spite of Sayles’ limitations, I should confess that I have a very soft spot for his work. I saw Matewan when I was in high school and it was a revelatory experience for me. I’d never realized that not all movies get made by studio conglomerates, and I didn’t know it was possible to make a movie about ordinary people struggling against social, political and class inequities. I was so moved, in fact, that I wrote a letter to Sayles asking for a production assistant gig on his next movie. (He wrote back, saying he wasn’t planning another movie for a couple of years, which turned out to be true.)

Casa de los Babys may not be a particularly successful film, but there’s no one else in America trying to dramatize the complex relationships we have as humans, divided as we are by borders and languages and customs. In John Sayles’ world, there are really no good people or bad people. There are just human beings, struggling for life, liberty and happiness inside a system that seems designed to deny those inalienable rights.

Some movies carry a lot of advance publicity simply because of a seductively lurid storyline and the involvement of well-known actors. But when people actually see the film, the bloom comes off the rose in a big hurry. Such is the case with James Cox’s Wonderland, a stupefyingly bad movie about the sordid post-stardom life of porn actor John Holmes. Boasting a cast that includes Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Tim Blake Nelson and (for crying out loud) Paris Hilton, this film devotes itself to the entirely unedifying criminal associations of the over-the-hill and coke-addled Holmes.

In 1981, Holmes was largely finished with a career that encompassed about 1,000 porn films. His drug habit had robbed him of the ability to levitate his famously large penis and he was reduced to pathetic penury, wheedling and nicking drugs from violent criminal acquaintances who would subsequently force him to run their ugly errands as repayment. Eventually, Holmes became involved in a brutal multiple-homicide, one that resulted from a feud between rival groups of hideous men. (It’s worth noting that Holmes was acquitted of all charges in this case, making the film’s existence even more meretricious.)

I’m not sure why anyone thought that this impotent and uninteresting stumblebum named John Holmes warranted a film. Besides, this material has already been done–and much more successfully–by P.T. Anderson, whose Boogie Nights incorporated elements of the Holmes story into a richer and more ambitious multi-layered saga of the California porn industry. The raison d’etre for Wonderland, at the end of the day, is one man’s freakishly colossal cock, but we never even get the goods. P.T. Anderson showed us a hilarious prosthetic penis at the end of Boogie Nights, but in Wonderland, if just a few lines of dialogue were omitted, we’d have no idea why anyone is interested in the sniffling, shaggy, weak-willed and unintelligent man that Val Kilmer plays on the screen. EndBlock