Winter of Our Discontent

Rose Troche uses the Altman method to reveal more suburban discomfort

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 the 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 late-winter 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' 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 (and desperate) bunch, but rest assured that 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 profoundly in his debt.

This is not to say Safety is totally derivative, or that it fails to cast a spell of its own. On the contrary, after a slow start in 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.

For those who think writers like John Updike and John Cheever played out the veins of suburban terror and tragedy decades ago, leaving spiritual descendants like novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) and filmmaker Todd Solondz (Happiness) with nothing much to do, Safety is not likely to stir the blood. And those who believe suburbia itself is too easy a target--a punching bag struck once too often by lightweight symbolists--the film will probably prove an annoyance. But for many, the rise and fall of the American Dream amid supposed comfort and presumed conformity is still an apt subject for debate. It's a subject Troche manages to rekindle 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."

Troche announced herself as a filmmaker to watch with 1994's Go Fish, a smart, comic look at the courtship ritual of two women, and her recent credits include at least one episode of the hit HBO series Six Feet Under. With The Safety of Objects her eye for human disorder grows more keen, her female perspective more valuable. But the latter is by no means a clubby kind of thing. All of us--man, woman and child--are meant to be discomfited together and, in the last reel, treated to a guarded sort of uplift. Her ensemble cast is splendid, especially the unhappy children. Her many plots weave together nicely when the time is right, and the overriding sympathy she shows for her characters is a lovely thing to behold. This is not the easiest film in the world to untangle, but our attentions are soon rewarded.

 
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