Inside Maternity Row

Henry Jaglom has got a hell of a racket. He takes a house full of yuppie women, gives them a rough guideline for what he wants them to say, turns on a camera, and whatever comes out he calls a movie. And the damnedest part is it works.

In the wake of 1991's Eating, in which 38 women discussed their intimate relationships with food, critics touted Jaglom as the mythical Man Who Understands Women. Expect more of the same with his latest offering, Babyfever.

This time out the subject du jour is the tick, tick, ticking of that biological clock. There's the thinnest of plot lines A Gena may be pregnant by her safe but boring boyfriend, James. While she awaits the results of her pregnancy test, a dynamic old flame, Anthony, suddenly reappears. Torn between James's stability and Anthony's sex appeal and pondering the implications of her maybe pregnancy, Gena attends a baby shower. Gena's dilemma becomes intertwined with those of the two dozen or so other party guests, all of them well-heeled women in their thirties and forties.

Will they ever have a baby? If they had one was it worth it? What kind of man makes the best father? If they don't have a male lover, should they proposition a friend? Visit a sperm bank? Use a turkey baster?

A healthy cross-section of attitudes is represented. Rosie's significant other has two grown kids from a previous marriage and isn't sure he wants more. Eartha has decided not to propagate. "My mother raised me to be a warrior," she reasons. "Babies are lovely when they are three years old. But they grow up and at some point they hate you." Maggie suffered a heartbreaking miscarriage but wants to try again. Gena's best friend Roz married early and forfeited what she felt could have been a promising singing career "just to be somebody wonderful's mother." Quintessential career woman Kelly, a corporate lawyer with an Ivy League pedigree, is losing her patience waiting for the right man. "People call me up and want to go to dinner," she explains, exasperated. "I say dinner? I've gone to dinner for years and it's done no good. I need to have a child!"

Impeccably dressed Lucy, another successful career woman, poignantly acknowledges the cost of her life choice. "I don't feel like I'm living my life as a woman," she says. "I'm living my life as a very sensitive, highly evolved man!" Rachel is trying to conceive, but not having any luck. Thirty-five-year-old divorcee Carol has a friend who is "gay and HIV negative and has been for years" and if she doesn't meet someone soon she'll have a child with him. Caterer/ex-performance artist Molly prods Gena not to have a baby with James just because she feels comfortable with him, and not to turn to Anthony either. "Now you're confusing men who excite you with men who screw you over," she cautions.

Jaglom's critics tend to attack him on three fronts. His camerawork is about as skilled as that of your average wedding video. His characters engage in excessive navel contemplation. And his movies are plotless.

Strictly speaking, they're right on all counts. But they're also missing the point. Jaglom's technique of turning on the cameras and letting the women talk makes for a unique blend of documentary and sympathetic caricature. Nobody will ever accuse the man of making up for lack of substance with stylish visual flourishes. Everything he's got to offer is in the dialogue and the acting.

And both are exemplary. Co-author and real-life wife Foyt, in particular, is a revelation as the bewildered Gena. Given Foyt's contributions as star, screenwriter, and recent mother, calling this a Henry Jaglom film may be as much a disservice as calling this executive term a Bill Clinton presidency.

As for navel contemplation, well, one person's self-absorption is another person's road to hard-found wisdom. If you've got a low tolerance for that sort of thing, Jaglom's characters will no doubt seem whiny. The thing that separates Babyfever from, say, your average thirtysomething episode is that Jaglom has a sense of humor and knows the difference between poignance and bathos. That and the fact that half of the characters in thirtysomething were males. (Not necessarily men, mind you. Males.)

It's safe to assume that even Jaglom would agree his films are plotless. And he would probably add, "But who gives a damn? Life is plotless, too." Jaglom is like that. A take-it-or-leave-it kind of guy. So his camera jiggles and jumps. So his characters say "er" and "um" a lot. So nobody gets shot, no cars get smashed, and nobody has superhuman powers. It isn't easy being the Man Who Understands Women. Henry Jaglom is giving it his best shot.

 
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