Pity the likes of John Cheever. Suggest that smug white suburbia is a carrier for specific strains of emotional turmoil and watch Hollywood wear itself out unraveling your oeuvre, picking out wan little threads and making whole big movies out of them: WASPs are uptight; men’s thwarted ambition is noble; women’s psychological restlessness is ludicrous. It’s the rare film that casts a suburban narrative not as revelation but merely as examinationof the limitations of caged hearts in a conformist society (Far From Heaven) or of the corrosion of the soul (Blue Velvet).
In the case of Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects, a minor but moving and inoffensive people-with-lawns flick, the topic at hand is the oppression of memory, from which only connection can free us. Adapted by the director from a book of stories by A.M. Homes, the film is undersized and meticulous, its focus on the particular travails of its characters; it humbly declines to indict the overall corruption of modern-day Levittown living.
Troche releases the interlocked narratives from Homes’ deadpan glee at the obscenities that lurk behind white picket fences; she doesn’t settle on anything, instead sweeping all characters, events, and shifts of mood into a rushing flow of interaction and images. The movie segues swiftly between scenes of the Golds, the Trains, the Jenningses, and the Christiansons as they remember the events leading up to the accident that connects them all. Troche also flashes forward, and there’s usually some cross-pollinationa visiting Gold, a Jennings at dinner with the Christiansonsthat makes for deliberate confusion during a good two-thirds of the film. Neighborhood is family, Troche seems to be saying: All the resentment, pain, and misunderstanding that can take place within one house may also be writ large over the community landscape.
Paul Gold (Joshua Jackson) is the living skeleton in the family’s closet, and his presence is a rebuke to everyone around him: The accident put the 19-year-old aspiring musician into a vegetative state and turned the Gold home into a hospice. Esther (Glenn Close) channels all of her maternal tenderness into her son, talking to him, repositioning his body, changing the in and out tubes, flexing his wasted muscles. Sister Julie (Jessica Campbell) suppresses her survivor’s guilt with a grand show of teenage resentment at being marginalized for her health.
Meanwhile, Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) walks out on his law office after a slight, vowing to keep his state of career limbo a secret from his blithely contemptuous young wife (Moira Kelly) and the two kids she can’t be bothered to care for. In a response to his lack of feminine support and supervision, little Jake Train (Alex House) carries on a tempestuous affair with a gorgeous, bitchy, demanding plastic mistress, a Barbie-like doll called Tani. The script’s serenity over such a potentially tragic relationship is awesomeJake’s burgeoning emotional maturity is eventually represented by his meeting a new love: G.I. Joe. He’s going to be all right.
Over at the Jennings household, however, Annette (Patricia Clarkson) is barely holding it together, raising two pint-size hellions and battling her ex over late child-support checks; at the Christiansons’, Helen (Mary Kay Place) wants something more out of life than healthy snacks and affirmation-driven tai chi can give her. There are relationships between and among the kids as well, and a hunky gardener who’s not as stolid as he seems.
The trouble with The Safety of Objects is that it’s a compendium of clichés. Only Troche’s even tone, which gives equal weight to every scene and watches the kids’ mischief with the same cool eye she turns on the adults’ foolishness, saves the film from being an overwrought study of middle-class idiots in breakdown mode. At the same time, the smooth, fast cuts keep it from building up a head of steamor amounting to much more than a well-groomed ensemble drama. Such climax as the film has is a drawn-out sequence in which Esther enters one of those marathon hands-on contests to win a car for neglected Julie, and Jim, adrift and purposeless, seizes on the event to act as Esther’s stamina coach, pit-stop mechanic, and spiritual adviser.
Somewhere else in town, Helen girds herself for a fling with freedom that she really doesn’t want, and Annette puts aside tormenting memories of her affair with the now-comatose Paul when her daughter is abducted, sort of, by the needy gardener. As characters spin out of control, their motivation is a misplaced conviction that they are finally taking control, and it’s sad, laughable, and finally a little bit trivial to watch them all tuck tail and slink back to their lives. To Troche’s credit, she hands out the transformations only as needed. The script honors the difference between levels of crisis in each household: The Trains are basically finethey just have to stop taking each other for granted (a so-what revelation played so-whatishly)whereas Esther has put her entire family into suspended animation for the sake of her unresponsive son.
The Safety of Objects doesn’t coin any new ideas, but, fortunately, it doesn’t live up to the pretentious implications of its title, either. And most important, it never confuses tasteful interior decoration with a promise of tidy inner lives. CP