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Deep End of the Ocean

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 12 March 1999

  Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams,
Michael McElroy, Cory Buck, Jonathan Jackson,
Ryan Merriman, John Kapelos, Rose Gregorio,
Tony Musante and Whoopi Goldberg.

Screenplay by Stephen Schiff,
based on the novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

In The Deep End of the Ocean, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Beth, a middle-class Wisconsin mother of three children who suddenly discovers that her youngest son, Ben, has disappeared, and she then goes through the succession of events and emotional states that come with such an occurrence. She maintains her composure during the important first hours while a search is being implemented; later, in the presence of her husband Pat (Treat Williams), she frighteningly breaks and gives in to her emotions (so much so that she bites into Pat's hand when he tries to restrain her). There is a surge of friends and volunteers who come forward to help; then, in the course of time, Beth finds herself alone and ends up withdrawing into herself, leaving the burden of her responsibilities to be, resignedly, taken up by her oldest son Vincent (Cory Buck), including the caring for his baby sister. Beth walks away from her career as a freelance photographer. After the family moves to the Chicago suburbs, eight years after the disappearance, Beth finds herself one day standing face to face with a boy, Sam (Ryan Merriman), whom her now school-aged daughter knows by acquaintance. The boy is verified to be her missing son Ben, who in the intervening years had made his way into another family, and was living within ludicrously close proximity to Beth's current home all this time.

This story, from a novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard which became a best-seller, is the type that material that an old-style studio like M.G.M. or Paramount, in the Thirties or Forties, would, for better or worse, have found ways to dramatize to the fullest extent. It has lots of things -- the disappearance of a child, its possible endangerment, a grieving mother, a family and marriage thrown into crisis, suspense, pathos, and, then, the realization of what any mother who has experienced this type of loss would wish for but dare not say. There is even a story development that calls into question the exclusivity of the concept of "family". But while this picture has been capably handled and has perfectly fine performances -- from Pfeiffer, who portrays Beth with highly affecting results; Treat Williams, who works well with Pfeiffer and, it should be noted, makes a pleasing appearance, for the first time in years, in a lead role for a prestige production; and others -- it seems, for one reason or another, restrained in ways that ultimately work against it.

For one thing, it loses a tremendous amount of credibility right up front. How could a mother take three young, small children with her on a long-distance trip, away from their father, then park them, alone, in a crowd of people, untended, and walk away from them? Only a fool would do this, and Beth is not portrayed as such. If the film had come up with some plausible way of presenting this -- as a momentary lapse of judgment, say, or something to do with a matter of urgency -- it would have worked better. Instead, it just seems like a gimmick by which to set the events that follow into motion. (It is Pfeiffer's performance, in matter of fact, that holds onto our interest and keeps us engaged, even after a narrative goof of this proportion.)

When the son, Ben, does turn up, it is revealed that he has not been living under conditions that would confirm one's worst expectations. In fact, he has been raised by a widowed father (John Kapelos, in a quietly moving performance) who loves him and has been taking perfectly good care of him. Ben comes across as awfully unfazed and easy-going when he is moved back into Beth and Pat's home. But the film doesn't explore why, nor does it delve much into the matter of Ben now having someone who is a second "father", who has as much of an emotional investment in him -- nursed him through childhood illnesses, fed him, clothed him, and helped him with his homework, et al. -- as Beth and Pat would.

The filmmakers -- including director Ulu Grosbard and screenwriter Stephen Schiff -- probably wanted to take the respectful, tasteful, impeccable route in making this picture, instead of going for the easy and the maudlin. But, as the film progresses, one gets the feeling that, in not emotionally exploring or developing the material to the extent that it could be, it is also avoiding anything that might be construed by the audience as jarring or unpleasant. Instead, the picture is increasingly inhabited by a lulling, reassuring, and, in an adverse sense, "therapeutic" tone, where the characters confront each other in scenes by saying things like, "Cam we get past this?" The filmmakers may think that they're showing them resolving their problems in a mature, constructive manner without raising their voices or getting ugly (or revealing their true emotions, either). The picture ends up coming across as complacent, even timid. Are the filmmakers this afraid to do or show anything that might, in whatever far-flung way, disconcert the audience (and the box office grosses), undercutting their own picture and robbing it of ways that could make it more dramatically satisfying and meaningful? We might as well stay home and watch movies on the Lifetime Channel.

The film and theatre director Ulu Grosbard has done an uneven series of film work, ranging from the recent Georgia (which, by comparison, makes this picture look like "blandsville") and the 1978 Straight Time, which has what is arguably Dustin Hoffman's finest screen performance; to the unusually muffled and muted 1981 True Confessions, another picture which didn't do as much with its source material as it could have. There are times when you get the impression, here, that Grosbard seems less stirred by the material than he would like to let on. But he does throw in one wild card: Whoopi Goldberg as Candace, a police detective who specializes in cases involving missing children, and who is among the first persons to come to Beth's aid. She has a comportment that is supportive, bolstering, yet also realistic and, when needs be, quite honest. In one scene, though, she suddenly flinches, as if coming in contact with an exposed high voltage wire, when Beth impulsively reaches out to touch Candace's hand. Immediately recognizing her gaff, the detective, in as honest, calm and unapologetic a manner as she would use in handling anything else, gives Beth a concise explanation of why she, in her words, sometimes haplessly comes across as being "'jerk'-ish". Beth, of course, has reasons to sometimes act "'jerk'-ish" herself, at the moment, and, the two women recognizing this in each other, end up becoming longtime friends. It's a story development that makes eminent sense, and, along with the assured, and artful, portrayal of warmth and presence which Goldberg gives the character, it's the one thing in the picture that I found myself reacting in the most positive way to.

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