Film » Screens

Winter of Our Discontent

Rose Troche uses the Altman method to reveal more suburban discomfort.

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What more can go wrong in suburbia? Director Rose Troche (Go Fish) wants us to know, and to that end she has recruited another army of wounded parents, troubled children, and broken dreamers, then marched them all into a whirlpool of dysfunction on quiet, tree-lined streets just minutes from the shopping mall.

This is, of course, the American Beauty stratagem -- or the Magnolia method -- for addressing the miseries common to the white middle class. In The Safety of Objects, Troche performs the drill as well as most -- with a lot of help from a huge cast led by Glenn Close and Mary Kay Place, and the psychological shadings in a book of short stories by A.M. Homes. If you're in the mood for an ultra-busy, multiplot soap opera with some serious designs on deep meaning, this is the movie for you.

It wouldn't do to unravel all the skeins right here. Let's just say that Troche has plucked no fewer than four loosely related families from Homes's dark thickets of discontent and thrown their traumas onto the screen -- rather messily, at first. The characters include a grief-stricken mother (Close), clinging to her comatose son (Joshua Jackson); a workaholic lawyer (Dermot Mulroney) who falls apart when he's passed over for promotion; and a little boy (Alex House) who acts out sad psychodramas, using his sister's favorite doll as his co-star. There's an angry single mother (Patricia Clarkson), trying to hold a family together while she pleads for her support check, and another seemingly comfortable housewife (Place), drowning in the banalities of life. This may sound like a pretty disparate bunch, but by the end, their fates are more or less linked, and they all come to have epiphanies of a sort. Like Beauty's Sam Mendes and Magnolia's Paul Thomas Anderson, Troche has absorbed her Robert Altman -- particularly the wide-ranging, character-rich Altman of Nashville and Short Cuts -- and she's very much in his debt.

This is not to say that Safety is totally derivative, or that it fails to cast a spell of its own. On the contrary, after a slow start, during which the complexities of person and plot take an age to get established, the film catches real emotional fire in some most unexpected places. From the secret torment of a child molester and the cheap spectacle of a car giveaway sponsored by a local radio station, Troche and Homes work up surprising dramatic power. In their vision of the world, even the most ordinary objects and places take on a surreal tilt. Their setting, you could say, is a typical American neighborhood at midnight, haunted by the demons of the commonplace.

Troche manages to imbue her subject with touching grace and occasional ironic humor. In Safety, a doctrinaire father (C. David Johnson), obsessed with showing his kids how to grill steak, gives off odd comic vibes, as does Close's otherwise pathetic speech to the family dog: "You'll be my witness, if anything else bad happens," she confides. "You'll let them know it wasn't my fault."

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