Depth Takes a Holiday

The Deep End of the Ocean turns out to be mighty shallow

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 in 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; with Michelle Pfeiffer.
Rated

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