SAFE PASSAGE * 3/4. Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman. Screenplay by Deena Goldstone from the novel by Ellyn Bache. Produced by Gale Anne Hurd. Photography, Ralf Bode. Production design, Dan Bishop. Editing, Rick Shaine. Music, Mark Isham. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sam Shepard, Sean Astin, Robert Sean Leonard, Nick Stahl, Jason London, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip Bosco, et al. A New Line release. 99 min. Rated PG-13.
"Safe Passage" should have come out at Thanksgiving time, not just because it is something of a turkey but because its major point is giving thanks.
Susan Sarandon played a mother in two 1978 movies, "King of the Gypsies" and "Pretty Baby," and again in the 1992 "Lorenzo's Oil," Those were, I suppose, parts by choice. Recently though, Sarandon (b. 1946) seems to have accepted mother roles by necessity, like so many other stars who nearing 50.
She did beautifully in the still-running "Little Women" where she had a relatively minor part. She does very well in "Safe Passage" where she is the focus and the epicenter of the film -- but to what purpose? "Safe Passage," the feature debut of an experienced stage director, is talky and diffuse, fairly pointless and uninteresting.
Mag Singer (Sarandon), during her 25 years of marriage to Patrick (Sam Shepard), has produced seven children, all male, now grown and away from home save for the youngest, 14-year old Simon (Nick Stahl, who was so good in the underrated "Tha Man Wthout a Face").
Mag is estranged from her husband, who now sleeps at his office. She wants to move away with son Simon, is vaguely planning a new life and is in the process of packing.
What were the real causes of this wife and husband rift, when it started, and what business Patrick is in, I can't tell. Perhaps I dozed off during explanation time. Another mystery is Patrick's on and off blindness, which no doctor can explain yet seems to get relieved by some equally mysterious pills.
The film opens with an artsy dream sequence, Mag's nightmare and premonition about her boys, intensified by her being a nervous -- if not neurotic-masochistic -- wreck.
Mag's ethnic provenance is vague (the characters have a pot-pourri of names) but she is the kind of born, son-protective worrier you find in many Jewish screen moms, or in novels like Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint." Except that most of those mothers can also be funny, which Mag is not, notwithstanding her eccentricities.
One son, the formerly dysfunctional Percival, joined the Marines and is in the Sinai. News comes of a terrorist night-bombing of barracks and many victims. Now all the Singers have a real reason to worry.
One by one, the other sons arrive, and Patrick too. They have to wait for some three interminable, agonizing days until the names of the dead soldiers are announced. During that time, a number of things about the past and present of the Singer family are shown to us, some catalyzing of relations and bonding occur.
In theory, this is a good idea for a movie. In execution, it is dull and duller. The characters are indifferent, neither appealing nor unappealing. No male Singer has a true personality or gets more than superficial development. Some are mere sub-sketches, except maybe Gideon (London) the athlete who had once beaten brother Percival in a race, and feels guilty because after this Percival abandoned sports, his one distinction, became aimless and then joined the Marines. Dumbly Gideon repeats "It's my fault." If only things were that simple...
There is much irrelevant padding. Mag, for solace or by some older quirk, plays classical music at rock-concert decibel levels. The Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition" comes in for forced comments and symbolism. A vicious neighborhood dog is used twice for no discernible reasons.
Worse yet, the movie is stuffed with flashbacks that come via memories, home movies and videos, and try to be portentous, significant and fraught with pathos. They are not. The one thing they illuminate is that the Singer family is uninteresting. The process is so annoyingly and predictably mechanical that any moments of relief come as manna for heaven. I counted three of them.
Around fast-dwindling tequila in the kitchen, there's a well-handled, unconventional conversation between Sarandon and one son's ladyfriend, older, divorced-with-children Marcia Hay Harden..
There's also Patrick's and Mag's overpowering, mutual sexual attraction, which perhaps explains the seven children. It leads to unexpected love-making which paves the way for a reconciliation. But we see nothing of any other kind of rapport between those two.
The best bit is also in the kitchen as Patrick prepares his tea. An irate Mag tells him: "For 25 years I've watched you dip the teabag exactly seven times, then throw it in the sink. Exactly who do you think puts it in the garbage?" Patrick, in an innocent voice: "Where is the garbage?"
This early promise of some humor is not kept. Except for rare moments, the well-intentioned but clumsy treatment is of notions not carried through, of noisy distractions that slacken the tension and dilute the real drama in a film that goes from being oddly unaffecting to singularly unmoving.