Fact-inspired abortion drama 'Call Jane' well-acted but dramatically inert

  • Joy (Elizabeth Banks), left, leaves behind her safe existence as a Chicago housewife to join "The Janes" founder Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) to provide illegal abortions to desperate women in the fact-inspired drama "Call Jane."

    Joy (Elizabeth Banks), left, leaves behind her safe existence as a Chicago housewife to join "The Janes" founder Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) to provide illegal abortions to desperate women in the fact-inspired drama "Call Jane." Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

 
 
Updated 10/27/2022 6:13 AM

"Call Jane" - ★ ★

Maybe, just maybe, operating an illegal, secret, underground abortion ring in 1968 Chicagoland might have been just as routine and dramatically inert as Phyllis Nagy's "Call Jane" imagines it to be.

 

A little paranoia would have gone a long way in telling the fictionalized story of the real-life women who defied the Catholic church and the law to provide an estimated 12,000 fellow females with the services they needed to address unwanted pregnancies.

Oddly, "Call Jane" never capitalizes on the tension that should have been a natural by-product from the constant threat of discovery. Will the cops break through the door at any minute? Will the women's families find out what they do? What then?

When these feminist outlaws -- collectively known as the Janes -- come together for a meeting, they discuss who qualifies for an abortion as if planning a PTA bake sale.

They never look over their shoulder pads.

The leader of the Janes, a tough and pragmatic cookie named Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, emanating quiet authority), has built this organization not as a charity but a moneymaking operation with hefty price tags into the hundreds of dollars per abortion.

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After having an alleged lifesaving abortion, a Chicago housewife and mom (Elizabeth Banks) decides to help a secret group called "The Janes" provide abortions to other women in Phyllis Nagy's fact-inspired drama "Call Jane."
After having an alleged lifesaving abortion, a Chicago housewife and mom (Elizabeth Banks) decides to help a secret group called "The Janes" provide abortions to other women in Phyllis Nagy's fact-inspired drama "Call Jane." - Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Her principal adviser, a Black Power advocate named Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), criticizes the high fees because it prevents low-income women from accessing their services.

Meanwhile, a prominent Jane appears to be a Catholic nun named Sister Mike ("Sopranos" star and John Turturro's cousin Aida Turturro) who womans the phones and whips up food for recovering clients. (Hey, what's her story? We never find out.)

Elizabeth Banks adeptly handles most of the heavy dramatic lifting here as Joy, a typical white, middle-class housewife and mother who's married to Will (Chris Massina), a corporate workaholic and possibly the most clueless husband in cinema history,

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Joy has a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and a baby on the way.

When a doctor bluntly tells Joy her heart won't survive childbirth, she spirals into crisis mode.

Without Will's support, she stands alone, despondent, at the top of the stairs leading to the basement. We know what she's thinking.

She doesn't do it.

Elizabeth Banks carries most of the dramatic weight in the fact-inspired "Call Jane" as a Chicago housewife and mom who finds purpose supplying abortions to women in need.
Elizabeth Banks carries most of the dramatic weight in the fact-inspired "Call Jane" as a Chicago housewife and mom who finds purpose supplying abortions to women in need. - Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Instead, she takes the advice from a flyer she sees. She calls Jane.

Any movie handling the hot topic of abortion, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade reversal, guarantees some degree of knee-jerk reactions from political factions.

"Call Jane" wisely avoids recycling the usual debate points from the Left and Right, preferring to concentrate on the sisterhood bond that drives the Janes to risk their marriages, families and social standings for the rights of women to secure the health care they need.

Virginia recognizes a kindred spirit in Joy. Soon after her procedure -- administered by a coldly efficient "doctor" (Cory Michael Smith, resembling a nerdy Ringo Starr) -- Joy gets a call from Virginia requesting that she pick up a new client and bring her to the Janes headquarters.

Quickly, Joy casts aside the safety of her apolitical life and not only begins taxi service for clients, she becomes quite proficient at performing abortions herself.

Despite its heroic aspirations, and masterfully nuanced performances by Banks and Weaver, "Call Jane" remains a curiously soft drama that forgets to remind the characters (and us) just how much they might lose should they be discovered (although that might never happen as long as Will continues to believe Joy spends all that time in "art classes").

Like Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7," "Call Jane" may be set in Chicago, but doesn't exude authentic "Chicagoness" the way other local productions have done.

Virginia, while summing up her organization, might have inadvertently reviewed her movie when she said, "It's not perfect, but it works."

Note: You can see the new documentary "The Janes" on HBO.

• • •

Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Aida Turturro, Cory Michael Smith

Directed by: Phyllis Nagy

Other: A Roadside Attractions release in theaters. Rated R for drug use, language. 122 minutes

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