Monday, January 03, 2011
This film is more than all right
By Edward Copeland
While all the buzz surrounding Annette Bening this year has circled her solid work in the overrated The Kids Are All Right, she turns in a much-better performance as the largest figure in another superb 2010 ensemble, the one assembled by writer-director Rodrigo Garcia in the criminally overlooked Mother and Child.
The Kids Are All Right and Mother and Child have more than just Bening in common: Both films' plots concern adoption. In Mother and Child, it tells three central stories: Karen (Bening), who gave up a daughter she gave birth to at 14; Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a lawyer with the inability to form permanent relationships who was given up for adoption as a baby; and Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is determined to adopt a child since she and her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) can't conceive.
Beyond the three main characters, this film's rich cast includes Eileen Ryan, Cherry Jones, Jimmy Smits, Elpidia Carrillo, Carla Gallo, Marc Blucas, S. Epatha Merkerson, Shareeka Epps, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Elizabeth Pena, Lawrence Pressman and, in his best and most unique performance in ages, Samuel L. Jackson as Watts' boss at her law firm. Ahmed Best even turns up in a small role without a trace of Jar-Jar Binks.
I hate to keep comparing Mother and Child to The Kids Are All Right, but the first film so perfectly illustrates the problems I had with the second. Both are blessed with excellent casts (the difference being that Mother and Child's group of players is much larger), but whereas in Kids the acting saves an inferior and predictable script, in Mother and Child, the performers only enhance Garcia's screenplay, which did surprise me in several spots with the turns it made. On top of that, since the underlying structure proves so much stronger, Mother and Child affected me far more emotionally than Kids, which felt as if it were running through its story by rote.
Still, though there isn't a weak link in the cast, some individual praise must be doled out. Bening has given herself a helluva year, even if I didn't care for her other big movie. She's been good for a long time, but too often as she's aged, she's seemed stuck in a shrill sort of mode in films ranging from American Beauty to the wretched Running With Scissors. With Karen here and Nic in The Kids Are All Right, she gives relaxed performances that seem as if they mark new territory for her. What's even better is that for an actress who started out as a sex bomb who could act in films such as The Grifters, these two films show her unafraid to age on film and with so many actresses warping their facial muscles into misuse, that alone deserves accolades.
Watts, who almost always turns in a good performance as well, gives one of her best here as Elizabeth. Coming so soon after I saw her competent work as Valerie Plame in Fair Game, Elizabeth in Mother and Child is a wonder. This may be her best turn since she first gained notice in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.
As I mentioned earlier, it's really refreshing to see Jackson in the part he plays here. I can't remember the last movie I saw him in in which he didn't shout. His part isn't large, but it isn't showy either and it's just good to see him be instead of BE. I'd also be remiss if I didn't specifically mention Cherry Jones. I never got to see her in the stage version of Doubt and Meryl Streep took her role as the nun in the film version, but she does get to don a habit here, though at least this sister is a kind and conscientious one.
Garcia directs the film well, keeping the film moving smoothly as it segues between its stories, though it's his script that's the real star here. Mother and Child deserves more attention than it received.