Baby It’s You is a John Sayles film I never expected to see… it’s John Sayles for hire. Sayles has had a lucrative career as a ghostwriter of blockbusters (Apollo 13 famously had his name on one poster… but not after the WGA got done). But Baby It’s You is the first of his films as a director I’ve encountered where Sayles struggled to find something to amuse himself. This film’s producer and credited story writer, Amy Robinson, shares a lot with the protagonist played by Rosanna Arquette and the film feels an awfully lot like an “inspired by a true story.” Sayles does well with that genre, except Baby It’s You isn’t just subpar for Sayles… it’s a thoughtfully produced television movie.
With Sayles’s direction–he doesn’t really get going until the third act in a lot of ways, his earlier moments of accomplishment are just his knowledge of making a film work on a small budget. How do you show you’re in a busy schoolyard without a big budget? Sound. The first three-quarters of the film is Sayles using his filmmaking skills to make the 1967 setting work flawlessly. In the end, he finally gets some moments of actual human interaction, instead of superficial movie ones, and–even with Arquette–it works.
Baby It’s You starts with Sayles’s name and some anachronistic use of Bruce Springsteen (for Vincent Spano’s big scenes, which is an artistically interesting move but distracting and unsuccessful). It feels like it might be Sayles, but then it gradually becomes clear it is not. Sayles knows what to do with Arquette’s character and the moments with her group of friends in high school reveal where the film could have gone… but with Spano, Sayles is lost.
The film concerns Arquette’s relationship with high school oddball (not quite thug, not quite not) Spano as she leaves working class New Jersey for Sarah Lawrence. The acting is a big problem, but not the film’s biggest. Sayles really doesn’t know what to do with Spano… maybe because the character remains opaque to the viewer until the third act, but maybe because the story just isn’t interesting. I lost count of how many times I wondered why these characters’ experiences were worth my hundred minutes. Not a concern I tend to have with Sayles, who can take it from one end of the spectrum to the other. Baby It’s You doesn’t really participate in that spectrum. It’s in a whole different one–the one where Rosanna Arquette shows up in a movie.
Matthew Modine has a small role in Baby It’s You. At this point in Modine’s career, he was a young Hollywood actor on his way up (he got washed away by the Brat Pack). It’s a John Sayles movie with Hollywood politicking. Sayles doesn’t do well with it.
Actually, Modine’s good, probably giving the second best performance–Tracy Pollan’s quite good as one of Arquette’s college classmates. Bill Raymond’s also good in a small role.
Spano isn’t terrible, but he’s visibly out of his depth. Sayles’s script asks him for the impossible–the character’s just too vague. Arquette either gets a little better at the end or she’d just killed enough of my brain cells I didn’t care anymore.
I’ve been wanting to see Baby It’s You for about twelve years.
I could have waited.
Directed by John Sayles; screenplay by Sayles, based on a story by Amy Robinson; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Sonya Polonsky; production designer, Jeffrey Townsend; produced by Griffin Dunne and Robinson; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring Rosanna Arquette (Jill Rosen), Vincent Spano (Sheik), Joanna Merlin (Mrs. Rosen), Jack Davidson (Dr. Rosen), Nick Ferrari (Mr. Capadilupo), Dolores Messina (Mrs. Capadilupo), Leora Dana (Miss Vernon, Teacher), Bill Raymond (Mr. Ripeppi), Sam McMurray (Mr. McManus, Teacher), Liane Alexandra Curtis (Jody, High School Girl), Claudia Sherman (Beth, High School Girl), Marta Kober (Debra, High School Girl), Tracy Pollan (Leslie, College Girl), Rachel Dretzin (Shelly, College Girl), Susan Derendorf (Chris, College Girl), Frank Vincent (Vinnie), Robin Johnson (Joann), Gary McCleery (Rat) and Matthew Modine (Steve).