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Former actor Carl Franklin announced himself as a director with 1991’s One False Move, the kind of neo-noir that’s too nasty for mainstream audiences but prized by devotees of the genre. He followed it with Devil in a Blue Dress, which was slicker but still distinctive. Franklin doesn’t write his own scripts, however, so he enjoys limited mastery of his artistic fate. The director detouredvia a suspense-structured weepie based on an Anna Quindlen novel, One True Thingbefore finding another cops-and-grifters tale. Though Out of Time, scripted by TV writer Dave Collard, is considerably lighter than Franklin’s previous policiers, it should please those fans of the form who aren’t allergic to glib happy endings.
A lot has changed since 1995, when Denzel Washington played the hapless hero of Blue Dress. These days, it’s a surprise for Washington to impersonate a thug or a loserwhich is why Training Day was so widely overrated. The actor gives the character of Matt Lee Whitlock his customary sly charm, but less of the superhuman altruism that usually characterizes his roles as cops, coaches, shrinks, and reporters. The police chief of tiny Banyan Key, Fla., Matt isn’t corrupt or psychopathic, but he is a little loose about procedural details. Soon after he’s introduced, Matt is called to the home of a woman who reports a possible burglar. It turns out that this is a game the chief plays with his secret lover, the lovely Ann (Sanaa Lathan). Crime is low in Banyan Key, so the couple has plenty of time to frolic. There are potential complications, though: Ann is married to the hunky Chris (Dean Cain), who seems to be a jealous brute. Matt is also married, although he’s separated from Alex (Eva Mendes), a Miami police detective and another stunner. Luckily, Matt has his scruffy pal Chae (John Billingsley), the local medical examiner, to remind him that not everyone in the world is fashion-model material.
Although Matt isn’t entirely over Alex, things seem to be going pretty well for him. He’s having great sex with Ann, and he relishes the prospect of rescuing her from Chris. Then Ann announces that she has terminal cancer and needs big bucks for experimental treatment. It happens that there are big bucks in the police-station safe, thanks to a major drug bust. Matt could lend the cash to Ann until she can sell her insurance policy, but if he did thatwell, he just might find himself a murder suspect, desperately trying to unravel the case before DEA agents and Miami cops (led, of course, by Alex) can discover how many rules he’s broken.
Although Collard’s script provides a fair portion of flop sweat, Out of Time isn’t one of those movies whose sense of desperation is overpowering. Matt is essentially a humorous figure, not sufficiently astute to stay out of trouble but swift enough to hop ahead of the cops who don’t know as much about the investigation as he does. The movie does offer the obligatory action sequences, including a well-publicized one in which Matt hangs from a collapsing motel balcony, yet the major set pieces are played for laughs. In one sceneobviously added after Washington was cast in a part that was not originally written for an African-American actorMatt benefits from the fabled inability of white witnesses to tell black suspects apart. And loyal Chae, whose primary role at first seems to be comic relief, proves more important to Matt’s survival than the cast’s beautiful people.
Though the film posits a comfortably multiracial Florida, it doesn’t dwell on the particulars. The Latin-jazz score is by Graeme Revell, who usually specializes in action-flick orch-metal, and Banyan Key is merely a place with more water than, say, Ames, Iowa. And if atmosphere isn’t among the filmmakers’ priorities, neither is the plausibility of its characters’especially Alex’sactions and reactions. Still, Out of Time isn’t as slapdash or as generic as its title, and the script’s twists and Washington’s twinkle combine for a brisk entertainment.
The narratives of most feature films are more analogous to short stories than to novels, and attempts to squash the latter into 200-page scripts usually disappoint. John Sayles was a novelist (and a screenwriter) before he became a director, and at first he seemed to understand the distinction between the two forms. Such early films as Return of the Secaucus Seven and Baby It’s You were tightly focused, if not especially elegant. Later, however, Sayles became a little Dickens, stuffing his films with ensemble casts, latticework plots, and jarring tonal shifts. The result was such conspiracy-minded, semisatirical melodramas as City of Hope, Lone Star, and Sunshine State, which rang true only intermittently.
Sayles’ latest film, Casa de los Babys, is another ensemble-cast showcase, as well as another foray into Latin America. Like the filmmaker’s Men With Guns, it was shot in Mexico but is set in an unidentified country where poverty is common and English is rare. Except, that is, at a local hotel where six women wait to complete the frustratingly protracted process of adopting local infants. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a well-meaning Midwesterner who became a born-again Christian while dealing with a problem that is divulged later. She’s close to Leslie (Lili Taylor), a single, cynical New Yorker who dislikes most of the other women. Leslie particularly abhors Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), a demanding (and not-so-secretly disturbed) egocentric who alternately patronizes and threatens the locals. She’s friendly, though, with the youngest of the women, Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Washingtonian who’s under the thumb of a hard-driving husband. Less involved in the group dynamic are Eileen (Susan Lynch), an Irish-born, family-craving Bostonian, and Skipper (Daryl Hannah), a lean Coloradan who compensates for repeated procreative trauma with compulsive exercise. (Or perhaps she’s just pumping up for her role in Tarantino’s Kill Bill, the first volume of which is due next week.)
The hotel where the American women live is owned by Señora Muñoz (Rita Moreno), who tries to keep her dignity while her aimless son spouts moldy anti-American rhetoric. Her adoption-lawyer brother sends his American clients to stay at her place, and the two occasionally consult on questions of the women’s character. A maid at the hotel, Asunción (Vanessa Martinez), eventually reveals a backstory that is, of course, thematically relevant. Crypto-Latin music by Mason Daring (who’s scored every Sayles film except Baby It’s You) provides a suitably vague sense of place.
The script for Casa de los Babys turned out shorter than the average Sayles screenplay, providing what he calls “a little more breathing room for the visual part of the story.” The film does includes some dialogue-free montages of street life, which are not especially deft but still agreeably un-Sayles-like. The director follows a group of homeless children whose lives occasionally intersect with those of the visiting baby-seekers, for example, staging a particularly poignant moment that begins when one boy tries to steal an American woman’s purse. Yet Sayles can’t resist turning these interludes into an overly schematic kicker to the main story: While rich Americans struggle to breed, children in Nameless Latinland are thrown away.
Give Sayles credit for at least trying to be more cinematic, even if he has no particular flair for it. It’s not just his chronic didacticism that hobbles the film, however: In what’s meant to be the movie’s transformative exchange, Eileen and then Asunción deliver long speeches thatbecause neither speaks the other’s languageare only nominally addressed to each other. Casa de los Babys may dabble in handheld-camera free association, but its big moment is as theatrical as a Victorian melodrama. CP