The Shallow End of the Pool

The Deep End of the Ocean starts out as a maternal horror movie and ends up as a family therapy session. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Beth Cappadora, the photographer wife of restaurateur Pat (Treat Williams) and mother of two sons and an infant daughter. While checking into a jammed hotel for her 15-year high school reunion, she briefly leaves her three-year-old boy with his seven-year-old brother. That's when the younger child wanders off and vanishes. This hook is a primal fear for parents, and the film gives it a good twist or two. Like Jacquelyn Mitchard in her 447-page novel, the moviemakers are intent on showing what the child's disappearance and his surprise reappearance mean to the mother and her household.

Especially when trimmed and organized to fit the confines of a 105-minute movie, the story becomes a dysfunctional-family fable. The cataclysm of the kidnapping and the shock of the boy's return nine years later are emotional flash floods opening psychic sinkholes. Although the movie doesn't go in for quick fixes, it's not particularly revelatory or insightful. It's a textbook paradigm of grief, loss, and regrouping laid out in three acts.

Near the climax Pat accuses Beth of making a career out of unhappiness. (She has already stopped, then restarted her photography.) I hope that doesn't happen to Michelle Pfeiffer. She can be a phenomenal actress but not when she insists on her own seriousness. As Beth she performs with conviction and acumen, yet there's nothing instinctive or startling about her work here. She sets a clear arc and fills it. Pfeiffer is equally skilled at Beth's complaisance, confusion, and panic; at her lobby-filling paroxysm of pain; and at the existential sleepwalk induced by her bereavement. Unfortunately she doesn't make you know or feel more about Beth than you would from a slick magazine. That's the problem with the movie as a whole. Its actors play definable mental states, not fully fleshed characters. The result is sad in a thin, wan way.

Even as a cautionary tale or a grief aid, the film needs more richness and variety, more jolts of recognition. There's one choice moment midway through when Beth questions her daughter Kerry (played at age nine by Alexa Vega) about a boy she chats with at the front door. Responding to her mom's weird intensity, Kerry immediately protests that she isn't courting "stranger danger" -- after all, she's at home. Her spunky retort roused the only laugh (a rueful one) I heard in the screening room. It's a sign of life in a house and a film that sink into a state of life-in-death.

Set in a bland, comfortable suburb of Chicago, the film is an ethnic offshoot of Ordinary People (1980) -- which also centered on a suburban Chicago mother named Beth who was having problems with her son. In Ordinary People the older brother accidentally drowned, and the mother blamed the younger son. In the freakily similar The Deep End of the Ocean, the older boy feels guilty because he let the younger one annoy him and toddle off. Like Beth in Ordinary People, Beth in The Deep End of the Ocean neglects the survivor, Vincent (played at age 16 by General Hospital star Jonathan Jackson). But when it comes to the lost boy, this Beth blames herself -- and it cripples her. For years she doesn't realize how closely linked she and Vincent are in psychology and temperament.

Beth refuses to go along with what she views as the rest of the family's false hope. The first Christmas after the disappearance, her expansive Italian in-laws come to celebrate. They bring presents for the absent son, and Beth denounces this sentimental gesture as cruelty. If it's obvious that she is out of control -- she has ignored Vincent and also relied on him to, say, feed baby Kerry -- the ruthlessness of her grief cuts through the coziness of wishful thinking and gives her stature. Heroine-worship in movies is usually overt; in this film it's hushed, even subtle. For a movie to favor a haughty, withdrawn character over its outgoing ones is intriguing and a bit bizarre. But this emphasis doesn't go anywhere -- at least not anywhere interesting. In the few glints of real drama, Beth senses that her family might be doomed. But the narrative is too middle-of-the-road to make the clan come tumbling down. (Mitchard takes the Cappadoras further into limbo and leaves the marriage up in the air.) The film's Beth emerges from her numbness with a sharpened awareness and uses it to try to repair the family damage.

Almost a decade later, the younger son pops up, not as the Ben Cappadora they knew but as a stranger named Sam (Ryan Merriman), with a loving widowed father who didn't know the boy was kidnapped. Beth is the one who grasps the situation. She recognizes the vast inertial pull of the life the boy enjoyed between the ages of three and twelve, and she doesn't want him to be as scarred as she is. The bitter parent must face up to the selfishness of her mourning; Pat, the sunny one, must face the blindness of his dreams. They both must work to heal the wounds they've inflicted on the now-delinquent Vincent -- who turns out to be the linchpin of a reunited family. The film plays out like a routine practice for a relay race. With sober inevitability the baton gets passed from one character to another as Team Cappadora nears the brink of psychological health.

Ulu Grosbard's direction was all over the place in his 1995 indie Georgia. But he did incisive work 21 years ago in the blistering crime film Straight Time (featuring what is still Dustin Hoffman's best dramatic performance). Fifteen years ago he put an elegant gloss on a middle-class sob story called Falling in Love -- which is all I think he finally does with the film version of The Deep End of the Ocean. He and his screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, haven't figured out how to shoehorn into the film the avalanche of perceptions about otherwise unrecorded middle-class life that make the book optimum reading for planes, trains, buses, or an herbal bath. They do an assiduous job of cutting and weaving, but what they come up with is threadbare. Pat no longer has a heart condition; Beth no longer has a lover. Hints of a financial squeeze fly by (Beth arguing she can write off a meal, Pat urging her to take pictures again to keep Vincent in sneakers). Whoopi Goldberg's Chicago cop doesn't have a chance to win us over as Beth's unexpected friend. She's simply that obligatory contemporary-film figure -- the warm and wise homosexual.

Even on its own terms, the movie lacks follow-through. Goldberg tells Beth that Vincent does love his mother: The cop knows by the way he looks at her. I doubt the audience would agree. As Vincent, Jackson sets off a James Dean glare that could mean he wants to wring her neck.

There's a not-so-hidden attraction to melodramatic soap operas: they demonstrate a universe of risks and impulses making hash of lives committed to security and order. In the book Mitchard brings that out into the open -- she describes Beth falling for Pat precisely because he made her feel safe. But the movie neither creates a homey world that lives and breathes nor makes it wrenching when that world is breached. The superficial darkness of the movie would not survive the glare of a night-light.

The Deep End of the Ocean.
Directed by Ulu Grosbard. Written by Stephen Schiff, from Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, and Whoopi Goldberg.

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