John Sayles is one of the most reliable American independent filmmakers, but occasionally even the ablest among us stumble badly. At their best–in films like “City of Hope” and especially his masterpiece “Lone Star”–Sayles’ highly literate writing style and intricate story construction combine in subtle and sophisticated ways, with a result that’s both challenging and moving. Unfortunately, on an off day his dialogue can be stagy and false, and the interconnections he draws obvious and ham-fisted. “Casa de los Babys” is clearly one of his off days–as one might have predicted from the clumsy title alone.

The set-up is a simple one: a group of American woman are ensconced at a hotel in an unnamed South American country, awaiting action on their applications to adopt local infants. They’re very different types–a good-natured born-again believer (Mary Steenburgen), a hard-driving health fanatic (Daryl Hannah), a well-do-do Washington wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sharp-talking single woman (Lili Taylor), an impoverished Irish immigrant (Susan Lynch), and a vicious, dismissive manipulator (Marcia Gay Harden). Most of the script is concerned with their interaction and various revelations about their pasts. But to this Sayles adds elements designed to point up the disparity between these women’s position, which is still privileged despite their unfulfilled longing for a child. One is a constant emphasis on the division between them and the local staff attending to them with a mixture of obsequiousness and thinly-veiled contempt. The most obvious and heavy-handed example we’re offered is a Marxist maintenance man who rages at the exploitation of the natives by the rich northern interlopers. But he’s not alone: the wider hotel staff, including snippy manager Senora Munoz (Rita Moreno), takes lighter digs at the guests. The inability of the two groups to understand each other is most completely revealed in a long dialogue scene between Eileen, the Irish applicant, and a maid. The former speaks of the baby she so desperately wants, and the latter of the infant she’d given up for adoption years before, but each does so in a language the other can’t comprehend–and while the effect is touching, it also comes across as very calculated. But that’s not all: we’re also periodically shown a local unemployed man who tries to make ends meet by giving tours to the visitors and longs to make his way to America by winning to lottery, and–even more often–three street kids, one of whom is bought a book by one of the tourists which, being illiterate, he can’t even read. The whole point of the young trio is to contrast the loving treatment planned for the adopted infants by their would-be mothers with the cavalier attitude shown toward only slightly older children who are forced to fend for themselves. It’s a thread that can’t help but be moving, but comes across as entirely too unsubtle to be employed by a filmmaker as deft as Sayles usually is.

The picture is somewhat redeemed by the acting, but only the most aggressive of the stars–Harden and Taylor–come off really well. (Sayles gives them the wittiest, bitchiest dialogue.) The others are all adequate, but essentially tepid, with Gyllenhaal and Steenburgen suffering most from the pallid characters they’ve been given. Moreno struts about unable to stifle her natural glamor, and the local actors perform with a nice naturalism, but we never get to know them thoroughly enough to identify with. (The dialogue is divided between English and Spanish, with subtitles provided for the latter.) The film doesn’t overcome the limitations of its low budget as well as Sayles’s better effort have; a montage of local neon signs, for example, looks surprisingly clumsy and would have been better jettisoned, but even elsewhere the visuals are little more than functional.

“Casa de los Babys” is undoubtedly a sincere effort on Sayles’s part to make a film sympathetic to a female perspective (as he’s done more successfully in the past), and in the process to say something about the relationship between the developed and developing nations. But sincerity is no substitute for dramatic excellence, and in this case Sayles’s ambition proves far greater than his accomplishment.