When Karen (Annette Bening) was 14 years old, she got pregnant and gave up her child, leaving an open wound in place of her soul. Nearly 40 years later, she's still punishing everyone around her, from her own ailing mother to her housekeeper to the friendly co-worker (Jimmy Smits) who makes gentle advances toward her. Meanwhile, the daughter she never knew, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), has become a ruthless overachiever to the exclusion of real human feelings. She clinically carries out one-sided relationships with men — including her gentlemanly law firm boss (Samuel L. Jackson) — and with her clueless next-door neighbor. Elsewhere, a young couple struggles through the labyrinth of the adoption process, while guilt-driven wife Lucy (Kerry Washington) blames herself for her infertility.
Director Rodrigo Garcia slowly interweaves the stories of these bitter women in the ponderous, self-conscious manner of such films as 21 Grams, which also starred Watts. As with his earlier film, Nine Lives, he employs Joan Crawford's "more stars than there are in heaven" approach, packing the screen with skilled actors in an effort to overcome many script shortcomings.
It almost works; Bening is in fine form here, and lends a scorpion sting to her every line and stare. Watts, continuing her winded streak of on-screen nudity, makes for a fascinating, almost alien sexual predator, and one hell of an ice queen, until the screenplay cruelly shortchanges her midway through.
The men are but afterthoughts, slow-moving ducks to be shot down in the ladies' emotional shooting gallery. Smits is mostly reduced to comforting glances and tender coos. Jackson is a pleasant surprise, reminding us that when he's not camping it up, cursing at snakes, swinging sabers or chaining Christina Ricci to a radiator, he's capable of remarkably subtle and effective work.
Despite the uniform strength of the performances, Mother and Child wanes to a too-cute melodramatic ending and a sudden sense of peace that feels unearned after all the bitterness and suffering that preceded it.
Opens Friday, June 4, at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.