After seeing "American Beauty" three years back, my colleagues and I had a
discussion over a Starbuck's about whether Sam Mendes' sophisticated look at the
American Dream gone sour could be considered an indictment of suburbia. Where
else would a woman be careful to weed her garden wearing gloves whose color
complimented the lawn? Materialism itself was not really the question: the
issue was whether living away from the glorious distractions of city life was
responsibility for making a family self-absorbed and alienated from one another.
Nobody really won that discussion, my opponents holding that the angst faced by
Kevin Spacey's character could be experienced anywhere.
The same question lies at the heart of Rose Troche's exquisitely performed "The
Safety of Objects," based on a composite of short stories by A.M. homes, the
characters welded together after a year's work by Rose Troche, who serves as
screenwriter as well. Favored by Geraldine Peroni's editing, "The Safety of
Objects" is the story of three families who live side by side in a modest
American suburb whose lives interweave during four days of crisis. These people
are so pre-occupied you couldn't imagine their discussing President Bush's
Middle East policy or domestic affairs particularly since their problems at home
would not be ameliorated even had they received generous tax breaks. Though one
of the women is having financial problems that deprive her daughter of summer
camp, for the most part even she is simply house-poor, surrounded like her
neighbors with the accouterments of the good life.
A character-driven piece, Troche's film introduces Paul Gold (Joshua Jackson),
now in a coma resulting from a car accident, whose profound disability is but an
extreme extension of the stupor those who play out their days about him. Esther
Gold (Glenn Close), for example, takes on the sole responsibility of nursing her
comatose son, all but ignored by her husband Howard (Robert Klein) as she, in
turn, is forced to deny quality time to her daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell).
Neighbor Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney), a lawyer who has just been passed over for
a promotion he felt certain to receive, all but freaks out, hanging out at the
mall to the dismay of his wife Susan (Moira Kelly), while their son Jake (Alex
House) takes must settle for consolation on conversations with a 12-inch doll.
For her part Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) is estranged from her husband
whose skipped support payments make summer camp impossible for her androgynous
kid, Sam (Kristen Stewart). At the next house over, Helen Christianson (Mary
Kay Place) cannot see that her husband likes her just the way she is: vitamins
and meditation serve as her desperate drive to reverse the aging process, nor is
she above an attempted flirtation with a handyman.
There's nothing particularly new in the theme, but what gives the film its own
resonance is the successful blending of the characters, indicating that maybe
there is consolation to be found in suburbia where the neighbors know one
another by name and where these people will wise up to realize that things are
no substitute for other human beings. While the families move toward closure by
the conclusion of these critical days, we suspect that they must ultimate depend
for relief, however insubstantial, on their bevy of toys. "The Safety of
Objects" is saved by terminal grimness by Troche's sense of humor, particularly
in the role of Dermot Mulroney as the disappointed workaholic who at least
temporarily becomes unhinged and shucks off his attachment to the workaday
Copyright © 2003 Harvey Karten