Director: Neil Labute; Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Kate Hudson, and Bud Cort; Cinematography: John Seale A.S.C.; Music: Michael Penn; Producer: Scott Rudin
Baby on Fire is a movie about a number of things: birth, flames, life, death, scarring, surgery, hospitals, maternity, paternity, and the unexpected consequences of sexual intercourse. It is not, however, about many other things: toddlerhood, adolescence, the teenage years, basic healthy life development paths, growing up, responsible parenting, friendship, redemption, religious fervor, or feats of heroism. It makes use of a style marked by a number of influences: most notably, Christopher Guest and Baz Luhrman. And yet it charts a course on new terrain for filmmakers: most notably the very, very hot uterus of a woman named Gwen Mackey (Kate Hudson).
Gwen has a problem, but she doesn’t know what it is. She knows she’s pregnant, but she can’t imagine why the baby inside her stomach emits such an insanely high level of heat. In the film’s opening scene, she holds her hand over her bulge and remarks to her husband, Jed (Aaron Eckhart), “Feel here. The baby is kicking and it’s incredibly hot.” Jed puts his hand on his wife’s stomach. His hand, as promised, becomes incredibly hot. He pulls it away, and, devoted to his wife but, one begins to suspect, marked by a uselessness that might have repercussions once a fireball shoots out from between his wife’s legs and across the room, Jed goes to the kitchen and fills a freezer bag with ice.
He puts the freezer bag on Gwen’s stomach, the ice melts instantly, everything goes to hell, and the baby’s not even born yet.
Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of movies and books in the world that are basically regular domestic dramas except there’s something really weird going on in the family that acts sort of like a super massive metaphor but also like a plot hook so big that it relieves the author or filmmaker of the responsibility of capturing the true breadth of the dynamics in the family drama he’s put a mask on and called by another name? Have you read The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta? Or The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris? If not, I can tell you what they’re about: families with problems who also have something really weird going on that acts as a sort of conductor for their problems because without a conductor or guise, talking things through would be extremely difficult, and would possibly make for a story plagued by its own sappiness.
Owing to the Guest/Lurhman dynamic, Baby on Fire sheds new light on the weirdness-on-account-of-fear-of-sappiness genre. Imagine Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby except that, for every music video-style sequence, there’s a middle-aged white guy sitting off to the side talking about how much he hopes Gatsby will defeat Tom Buchanan and win Daisy’s heart, because “if not for that, but for what purpose do parties serve?”
Baby on Fire is a little like that. On the one hand, you’ve got Lurhman-style fireworks, in the form of a baby that’s literally burning while really good music plays. And on the other, you’ve got Guest-style commentary, in the form of Gwen and Jed’s total detachment from the very real problem burning away in their nursery. And through it all, yes, Gwen and Jed, with a baby burning in the next room, turning their whole house hot, will encounter domestic issues. What will they do with a baby they cannot hold? Will their basic, morning encounters in the kitchen become more strained? Will Gwen’s flirtation with her tanned but superficial coworker become more salacious? Will Jed sound out the names of therapists in the yellow pages, check his online banking to see if he can afford one, and decide over and over again that taking a long, mopey walk down the bike path during which he smiles far too widely at dog walkers does him just as much good? Yes, in Baby on Fire, the domestic issues are still there. But, thanks to the Guest factor, they’re marked by a peculiar self-awareness or possibly extreme anti-self-awareness that, ultimately, baby flames aside, leaves the whole family cold.
“This baby is going to burn itself down,” Gwen says.
“We have encountered a major obstacle to happiness,” Jed says.
“Our domestic issues are their own separate animal,” Gwen says.
“I can’t touch the thing. It hurts too much. Both my arms, and my insides,” Jed says.
“It hurts me that the ultimate object of our affection hurts you,” Gwen says.
“It hurts me that the ultimate object of our affection hurts me and therefore hurts you,” Jed says.
“We are in a closed loop,” Gwen says.
“I wonder if we could just weep,” Jed says.
“I can’t believe a hot baby turned us cold,” Gwen says.
“We could call this movie Parents in Tears,” Jed says.
“I guess we could,” Gwen says.
So that kind of thing goes on for a while, and then, the movie has to end. And it does so with Jed and Gwen turning to ice sculptures while standing within inches of their unnamed burning baby. And the camera zooms in. And you see the heat flames reflecting off the glassy ice. And you wonder how we got to a point where this was possible.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.