The Safety of Objects

The Safetyh of Objects

USA, 2002. Rated R. 120 minutes.

Cast: Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Jessica Campbell, Joshua Jackson, Moira Kelly, Mary Kay Place, Timothy Olyphant, Kristen Stewart, Alex House, Charlotte Arnold, Andrew Airlie
Writers: Rose Troche, based on the book of stories by A.M. Homes
Music: Emboznik, Barb Morrison, Charles Nieland, Nance Nieland
Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak
Producers: Dorothy Berwin, Christine Vachon
Director: Rose Troche


Grade: C+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm interviews with Dermot Mulroney,
Mary Kay Place, Moira Kelly, and Jessica Campbell.

The latest entry in the slice-of-suburban-disaffection genre is The Safety of Objects, from writer/director Rose Troche of Go Fish and Bedrooms and Hallways. Like Lovely and Amazing and Happiness, and unlike higher-profile films like Magnolia or American Beauty, The Safety of Objects is not narrative driven, choosing simply to observe a few days in the lives of four neighboring families who are, the film implies particularly with its last shot, not so very different from any other four randomly chosen suburban families.

The Safety of Objects is itself not so very different from any other four randomly chosen suburban-disaffection films. With its multiple storylines involving kids struggling with adolescence and adults struggling with uncommunicative marriages and unfulfilling jobs, The Safety of Objects covers familiar territory. The twist in The Safety of Objects is that underneath this suburban world of self-alienation lie not repressed sexuality, illicit affairs, or sublimated rage, but grief and guilt.

Most of the characters are struggling in one way or another with the outcome of a devastating automobile accident that left one person dead and another in a coma. The coma victim is teenager Paul Gold (Dawson's Creek's Joshua Jackson, whose job is to lie still except in flashbacks). His mother, Esther (Glenn Close), nurses Paul lovingly but has little left over for her husband Howard (Robert Klein), who can't even look at Paul, and teenaged daughter Julie (Election's Jessica Campbell). Using Esther's feelings of guilt as leverage, Julie enters her mother into a local radio endurance contest to win a brand-new SUV.

Immediately before the accident, Paul was having an affair with much-older single mom Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson of Far from Heaven and The Untouchables), who also suffers his loss while juggling her messy divorce and two children (including Panic Room's Kristen Stewart) . Glenn Close and Patricia ClarksonHer friend Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) has her own children to take care of and feels undesirable and uninterested in her husband.

The fourth family consists of Jim and Susan Train (Dermot Mulroney and Moira Kelly) and their children Jake (Alex House) and Emily (Charly Chalom). Without telling Susan the details, Jim abandons his law firm after being passed over for a promotion. At home, he tries to reconnect with his son, but Jake is too busy handling the onset of puberty via an imaginary romantic relationship with a doll. Jim absconds to the local mall, where the radio contest is being held. He abruptly resolves that Esther must win the SUV at all costs.

A link between all the families is handyman Randy (Timothy Olyphant, Go, Rock Star), who is the only character to appear in a scene with each of the other characters. His house is mostly empty, because he believes that ownership of too many things leads to identifying oneself with one's possessions. This rather obvious moral is basically the film's message. Most of the characters use material things as solace from personal loss and confusion, be it a new SUV, a guitar, sporting goods, a fancy dishwasher, or even a plastic doll--thus the title. Even the names of two of the families--Gold, Train--are objects.

Though well-edited from a visual standpoint, the proto-Altman storytelling has glaring weaknesses. The Safety of Objects struggles with clarity, and some narrative decisions are just daft. Many of the relationships between the neighboring families and characters are presented rudimentarily, and why Jim makes Esther's contest for the SUV into his personal crusade is a mystery. It is possible to guess, of course, but The Safety of Objects doesn't seem terribly concerned with studying many of the characters too deeply. Randy's own grief--and self-prescribed remedy--is not probed sufficiently to explain his rather bizarre behavior. Then there are Annette's feelings for Paul. We have no idea how their relationship began, and without scrutiny, their affair is highly implausible, seemingly shoehorned into the script to make Paul's accident relevant to the Jennings family. If so, it is unnecessary, because the accident eventually affects the Jennings in another way. Jake's affair with the doll is also unlikely, but more forgivable because of its value as comedic relief. The muddled narrative is unsurprising, given that Troche adapted the film from a series of separate stories by A.M. Homes, which she juxtaposed and interwove. Not an easy task.

Due to a nagging lack of lucidity regarding key details, The Safety of Objects will not eject you from the theater having experienced cathartic revelations about the human condition. Yet the characters are unusual enough, the dialogue sharp enough, and the acting good enough that it is relatively pleasant watching these lives for a couple hours, regardless of how well you can relate them to yours.

Review © February 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2001 Renaissance Films. All Rights Reserved.

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