Review: 'Mother and Child'

(Two stars)

Rodrigo Garcia spurned the common wisdom that urges one to "Write what you know." Focusing on three intersecting stories of mothers and daughters, the writer-director of "Nine Lives" has fashioned a reverential, idealized version of motherhood certain to polarize female viewers who may not agree that having a baby is the ultimate goal in life. "Madonna and Child" might have been a more appropriate title for a film that equates maternal bonds with purpose, saintliness and peace.

The son of Colombian novelist and former film critic Gabriel Garcia Marquez knows how to create showy roles for actresses. Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington deliver brave performances, even though their characters ring false as often as they reveal authentic truths. All of them grapple with regret and the emotional costs of adoption -- and they do so in a world in which men play conspicuously insignificant parts.

Bitter, difficult and lacking social graces, physical therapist Karen (Bening) lives with her dying mother. Karen resents the woman who had forced her to give up a newborn daughter when she gave birth at the age of 14. She perceives her empty life as a chain of disappointments, until a widowed co-worker (Jimmy Smits) inexplicably falls in love with her.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a driven, highly successful lawyer with ice running through her veins. The 37-year-old values her independence, telling her future boss and lover (Samuel L. Jackson) that she has been on her own for two decades and is "not in the sisterhood."

That's obvious. She almost slams her apartment door on the neighborly married couple who welcome her to the building -- only to expose her naked body to the husband and seduce him for sport the next day. Guess what? Elizabeth was adopted, and therefore surfaces as the most twisted, damaged character in the two-hankie movie.

The most likeable protagonist, Lucy (Washington) cannot have a baby and desperately wants to adopt one. But her husband (David Ramsey) insists on having a child of his own. Washington showcases her extraordinary emotional range, and Garcia's narrative finally explores issues about the choices and role of the birth mother, as Lucy undergoes a heartbreaking search for a baby to love. Yet, at the same time, Garcia hammers home his view that adoption should be a choice only when no other alternative exists.

As in "Crash" or "Babel," the separate story threads weave into a highly contrived ending that suggests a divine interconnection among the three women and sanctimoniously judges each one of them.

For its strong point of view and tearjerker sentiment, "Mother and Child" earns a spot in the women's weepie genre. Although Garcia deserves kudos for giving juicy roles to three extremely talented actors, he conforms to the traditional conventions of the women's picture by prescribing the rules of appropriate female behavior.

Those in the sisterhood -- as well as independently minded viewers of both genders -- might take offense.

Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity, and language. 2 hours, 6 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti

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