Published March 11, 2003
There is much to like about Rose Troche’s film, adapted from A.M. Homes’s book of stories, The Safety of Objects — individual moments of wit or poignancy illustrating, one is inclined to suppose, the deeper truths of human relationships. In one of my favorite such moments, a married couple out of whose marriage the spirit seems to have departed, Helen (Mary Kay Place) and Wayne (C. David Johnson) Christianson, are in bed in the aftermath of some sexual act and Wayne says to Helen with real dismay in his voice: “Why did you do that? You never do that!”
A bit later, we see Helen locked in a room with her computer and Wayne, with unaccustomed tenderness knocking at the door and asking to talk with her. She calls through the door for him to write whatever it is he has to say in a note and put it on the refrigerator. You will get the point that this is a film about communication and, much more often, non-communication, especially between husbands and wives and parents and children, in an upscale suburban community. The most signal bit of non-communication takes place at the neighboring household of the Golds, where the oldest son, Paul (Joshua Jackson), lies in a coma after a traffic accident.
This, you might think, would be plenty to be getting on with for a two-hour movie, but there is much more going on in the neighborhood. Too much. In addition to the Christiansons, and their children, Bobby (Aaron Ashmore) and Sally (Charlotte Arnold), and the Golds, Esther (Glenn Close) and Howard (Robert Klein), who have a daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell), as well as the comatose Paul, there are the Trains, Jim (Dermot Mulroney) and Susan (Moira Kelly) and their two children, divorced mother Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) and her two daughters, Samantha (Kristen Stewart) and Rayanne (Haylee Wanstall) and various other friends and neighbors, including Randy (Timothy Olyphant), the lawn and pool guy.
Just keeping the characters straight takes an effort, but they are all living very full if not very happy lives. Both Esther and Julie Gold are eaten up with guilt about Paul; Helen is lecturing Sally about her body image; Annette is not getting child support from her bum of an ex-husband, who is about to re-marry, and is trying to keep the girls as well as herself from hating him while pursuing Randy — or anything else in trousers — as a hopeful replacement. She too is suffering from guilt, among other bad feelings, about Paul, as before the accident the two of them had been having an affair which Esther didn’t know about. Randy, we gradually learn, is also eaten up with guilt and about to go off the deep end in some seriously scary way.
Esther tries to win an SUV for Julie by keeping her hands on it in a radio-station’s endurance contest. Julie tells the disc jockey at the mall where the contest is taking place that her mother will win because “she knows it is going to make up for a lot.”
The DJ says, “OK. Guilt is alive and well here, I see.” If only he knew!
As if all this weren’t enough, Jim Train doesn’t make partner at the law office in spite of working so hard that he has neglected his family, and he fears that Susan may be having an affair. When he walks out of the office to spend some time at home, he seems to destroy everything he touches around the house and discovers that his 12 year-old son, Jake (Alex House), is pursuing a passionate relationship with his sister’s Barbie doll. This is something he doesn’t really want to know about, and he leaves both home and office to find the missing purpose in his life as — Esther’s “manager” in the SUV contest. Somehow it is easier for him to make sense of the world when he is insisting to Esther on the correlation of effort and reward, which has not been true in his own case.
I’m sure that there is more that I am forgetting, and the comedy in many of these vignettes is no less enjoyable for taking place balanced on the knife-edge — at several points — of tragedy. But even though the focus on Paul and the accident is admirably kept up, with the help of flashbacks, in spite of all that is going on around his comatose figure, the film is rather spoiled for me by the final scene between him and his desperately grieving mother. I won’t spoil it even further by revealing what happens, but I found that The Safety of Objects finally becomes not just safe but a little bit smug.