Monday, September 7, 2009

Baby for Sale (Lifetime, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Baby for Sale, shown by Lifetime last Saturday for a special event called “We’re in Labor … Day!,” a quirky theme to pun on the two major meanings of “labor” by picking the Labor Day weekend for a festival of movies about pregnancy — though actually no one is pregnant in Baby for Sale and the movie’s central premise is that, after years of trying and failing to conceive a child of their own despite all the tricks in the current fertility doctor’s armamentarium (including drugs as well as in vitro), Dr. Steve Johnson (Hart Bochner, considerably better looking than the guys who usually play Lifetime husbands) and his wife Nathalie (Dana Delany) finally give up on the natural route and decide to adopt. Only they’re unable to get a timely adoption through regular, above-board channels, so in desperation Nathalie posts their entire adoption profile on the Internet and gets a nibble from a corrupt Hungarian attorney named Gabor Szabo (Bruce Ramsey).

The moment I heard the character name I immediately recalled the real Gabor Szabo, a jazz-rock guitarist popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s who made albums with titles like Spellbinder and Bacchanal, and wondered if the gimmick was going to be that the name was phony and the guy might not even be Hungarian — but apparently we’re supposed to think that is his name and it was the writer, John Wierick, who either ripped off the name or thought of it independently. Anyway, Gabor has hooked up with a fellow Hungarian immigrant, Janka Maglar (Elizabeth Marleau), who’d recently given birth to a baby girl named Gitta (Kayla Pownall). Janka has simply asked Gabor to find her baby a good American family to raise him, since she can’t afford a kid on what she was making in Hungary, but Gabor sees little Gitta as a goldmine and offers her to the Johnsons for “expenses” of $100,000. He also offers her to several other similarly desperate U.S. families with the intention of selling her to the highest bidder.

The Johnsons catch on to what’s going on and report it to the FBI, whose agents tell them that Gabor hasn’t broken any federal laws and even in New York (where the Johnsons have traveled from their home in Minnesota to pick up “their” child) all he’s guilty of is a misdemeanor (like walking your dog without a leash,” a cynical New York cop tells them — lines Gabor himself repeats later in the film). Like a lot of Lifetime movies, this one is actually pretty good once you get through all the saccharine exposition — it’s a good fusion of problem movie and crime drama, directed in a welcomely straightforward fashion by Peter Svatek (odd that a movie involving Hungarians would be directed by someone with a Slavic name), though Wiereck’s script has a problem in that the big heart-pounding climax when Gabor finally gets arrested as a result of the Johnsons’ willingness to entrap him takes place two-thirds of the way through the movie and the finale is a bit of an anticlimax … though there are a few nice twists and turns left, including the revelation that Gabor lied and told the prospective adoptive parents of Gitta that her father was an American student traveling through Hungary, when he really was Hungarian — which adds an element of fraud to the case against him and thereby enables the authorities to convict him of a felony, get him three years in prison and then deport him to Hungary.

The fllm ends with a hearing in family court where the Johnsons are up against not only the New York Child Protective Services (who send a heavy-set Black woman as their representative — she keeps talking about “the child” and the judge in the case says, “She has a name — it’s Gitta”) but also the Hungarian consulate, representing a government that wants to repatriate the girl now that it’s established that both of her parents are Hungarian (Wiereck never makes it quite clear just where the girl was born, though I presume we’re meant to think she was born in Hungary since if she was born in the U.S. she’d be an American citizen at birth and therefore the Hungarians would not have a claim on her), but eventually Nathalie makes a heartfelt plea to the judge to place her with someone who will genuinely love her rather than the child “protective” system (which will mean subjecting her to the crapshoot of foster care), and Dana Delany plays this scene so intensely and with such delicate emotion that even I, who hardly ever cries at movies like this, cried. They get the baby, of course, and there’s a postlude backing Minnesota with Gitta a few months older (and now played by Billie Calmeau), where she’s settled in with the Johnsons and her stepbrother Evan (Matthew Rothplan), Steve’s (natural) son by his previous wife. Baby for Sale was a quite nice movie, well balanced between genres and genuinely moving and tear-jerking instead of being cheaply sensationalistic.