The reason Maggie Gyllenhaal will probably work forever is that for someone so on-sight appealing, she goes out of her way to seem genuinely unappealing. After her sensational, complex turn last year as a devious seductress in Don Roos’s glib Happy Endings, here is another impressive performance that most actresses would have played for soapy, Erin Brockovich-style pathos. Playing Sherry Swanson, a skanky, ill-mannered single mom just sprung from jail, Gyllenhaal wisely swaps pathos for the pathetic. In one scene, interviewing with a leering employment counselor, she uses her body to obtain job placement by lifting up her bra to flash her breasts (Gyllenhaal does this several times in the film for all the pervs who might wanna know). “I’ll suck your dick if you give me the job I want,” is her proclamation, and instead of stunted disbelief, we buy it. Just try to imagine Julia Roberts pulling that off (literally).
Pity the film is never really convincing outside of Gyllenhaal’s portrayal. By giving her a young daughter to pine for in the film, writer-director Laurie Collyer is already stacking the deck, Kramer vs. Kramer style. But Gyllenhaal is too smart for such triviality, making Sherry a monstrously believable mom: selfish, stubborn, and just as childlike as her youngster Alexis (played, quite marvelously, by Ryan Simpkins). Yet every time the film seems like a breakthrough, some movie-ready detail sidelines it. It wasn’t enough to make Sherry believably surly, a (rather grueling) scene of her singing the Bangles’s “Eternal Flame” to her daughter at a family dinner has to be thrown in so Sherry seems, you know, “human.” And of course, sexual abuse naturally has to play a role in how fucked-up she is, and is deployed with the subtlety of a polo mallet to the head (Sam Bottoms practically salivates in his scenes as her dad). There’s nice work around the edges here (B-movie fave Danny Trejo is surprisingly weighty as a fellow rehabber), and Collyer does manage to avoid some pratfalls usually found in this kind of drama. But for its good intentions, Sherrybaby remains an unsatisfying concoction, a warm light beer when the powerful sting of a good tequila is needed. The tequila runs through Gyllenhaal’s veins, but the film unfortunately needs a new tap.