THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN (1999) ** 1/2
The largest group deals with strabismus (cross-eyes), a condition which is mostly found among actresses and, interestingly enough, often gives them a sexy look. Karen Black, Madeleine Stowe, Jenny Jones, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Virginia Mayo (micro-strabistic), Frieda Inescort, Norma Shearer, Jane Greer, Dyan Cannon, Sandy Dennis, Barbra Streisand, Madeline Kahn, Nanette Fabray, Juliette Lewis, Lauren Hutton, Rachael Lee Boggs (She's All That, 1999) and others. Among the men we find Leslie Howard, Lima Nelson, Christopher Lambent, Michael, Burt.
I won't go into the other classifications, except to say that this study, subsidized with millions in governmental and private grants, is still in a preliminary stage. Its tiniest category is "crying eyes." I have been able to come up only with two actors: Sylvia Sidney in older times; and Michelle Pfeiffer in this generation.
Ms. Pfeiffer is a wonderful actress and a beauty with class. I've always sensed that her eyes were sad--and not only in moments that call for sadness. Over and above screen parts and moods, I am sure that the eyes had it.
The whites of her eyes are tinged with pink. So are the eyelids. Given her attractive features, Ms. Pfeiffer gets a lot of close-ups.Time and again, she looks like someone who is about to cry or has just finished crying.
The Deep End of the Ocean confirms this. Beth (Pfeiffer), is what makes the movie with her unending sadness. I was continuously conscious of the pink.
Beth, a freelance photographer,is the happy wife of restaurateur Pat. They have three children: Vincent, 7; Ben, 3; baby girl Kerry. They live in Madison, Wisconsin. The year is 1988.
For a high school reunion of the class of 1973, Beth drives to a Chicago hotel with all her brood.There, in the packed, high-decibel lobby, she goes to register after leaving the younger kids in the care of the 7-year old. When she returns, Ben has vanished. In spite of able police--men and women under the high-ranked Candy (Whoopi Goldberg)--of volunteers, posters and eager efforts, the three-year old is never found.
The portrait of a devastated family, with Beth as the central focus, is powerful. Pfeiffer's despair is entirely convincing, totally wrenching.
From bleeding--metaphorically--from all her pores she falls into a near indifference which at times skirts catatonia. Beth is at the point where she almost goes off the deep end--which does not, however, justify the dull title of the novel and of the film.
The family unravels, not in major, theatrical ways, but deeply nonetheless. A typical scene has Beth in her bedroom, oblivious that the baby is crying. Vincent goes to help the infant. But on his way out he pushes a vase that crashes on the floor. Dysfunction follows duty.
Nine years later, the Kappadoras are now in Chicago where Pat opens a new Italian restaurant. Vincent, at 16, is a rather bad, sullen boy, even dislikable--until you consider his peculiar family circle. Beth, still doleful-looking, seems to have recovered somewhat, she's resumed some of her photography.
Here begin the improbabilities. Sam, an unknown, 12-year old neighboring boy, nice and polite, shows up, offering to mow the Kappadora's lawn. Beth almost immediately recognizes him as the vanished Ben. She takes pictures of him. With a speed that would make Kodak happy but puzzle photographers who work out of a basement darkroom, she develops the photographs, juxtaposes them with old ones of Ben, and voila! Proof positive.
It turns out that Ben had been abducted by an unstable friend of Beth's (I got a bit confused here), who then married nice Greek-American George Karras. She later committed suicide. But Sam loved his "mother" and his adoptive father. When the authorities ascertain that Sam is Ben and return him to his biological parents, the young boy is not happy. Nor is George who adores the kid and is as devastated as the Kappadoras were back in 1988.
(Incidentally, between Madison '88 and Chicago '97 Michelle Pfeiffer, though a little more gaunt, has not changed or aged a bit!)
The Ben-found part is followed by Ben-lost-again as he sneaks back to George Karras. In Act IV however, the boy, upon reflection, returns to the Kappadoras, at least for now. It's a mixed picture: no guarantees, no commitment on his part, no closure to the saga.
What's involved in these off-on proceedings strikes me as the result of having a script that unavoidably shortens the original, a hefty, best-selling novel. The cuts sometimes lead to choppiness and simplifications.
On the other hand, I like the fact that the director does not invest in excesses of sentimentalism. Belgian-born Ulu Grossbard has been a successful stage director who occasionally makes forays into motion pictures. His first feature, The Subject was Roses (1968) was a fine adaptation of a Pulitzer prize winning play. His third, Straight Time, starred Dustin Hoffman as a paroled convict in a milieu of powerful supporting actors. It was impressive. True Confessions, Falling in Love and Georgia were not hits but each had remarkable elements.
To bring together the rebellious Vincent and the confused
Ben, the film uses as fact and metaphor, driveway basketball competition.
The young men are very good as players (actors) and as players (ball).
The device works well -- yet I'd have to see the movie again to decide
whether this is a clever gimmick or a true dramatic touch.