The Safety of Objects Movie Review

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For all of Robert Altman's greatness, his lasting legacy to future filmmakers may be the wrongheaded assumption that anyone can successfully weave together sprawling, multi-character stories into a coherent thematic experience. With the exception of a scant few disciples (headed by the visionary Paul Thomas Anderson), these spiritual and technical descendents of Altman's films, too often hampered by schematic plotting and clumsy melodrama, routinely turn out to be wobbly facsimiles of Altman's operatic, multi-layered storytelling. The latest release that falls into said category is Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects, an uneven tale (based on the short stories of A.M. Homes) of intertwined suburban families dealing with grief and loss, and its failed bid for originality takes the form of an unreasonably high quirkiness quotient.

Despite an awful title that's perfectly suited for a hospital or construction site safety guide, the objects in question are not dirty syringes or rusty nails; rather, The Safety of Objects is brimming with narrative strands about people coping with life's most difficult and daunting elements (the loss of a loved one, sexual frustration, professional ennui) by focusing their quests for happiness on either their unsatisfying careers or mundane possessions such as dishwashers, guitars, and treadmills. Esther Gold (Glenn Close) fanatically dotes on her comatose songwriter son Paul (Joshua Jackson) in lieu of caring for her husband Howard (Robert Klein) and rebellious daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell). Neighbor Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) is a single mother trying to take care of her two kids while waging a financial and personal battle with her ex-husband. Lawyer Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) can't see the forest from the trees because of his fixation with work, and his constant absence from his wife and kids has made him unaware of son Jake's (Alex House) creepy relationship with a Barbie-esque doll that speaks to him. And in a prime example of dysfunctional overload, we even get sexually frustrated, fanatically health conscious housewife Helen Christiansen (Mary Kay Place), as well as neighborhood gardener Randy (Timothy Olyphant), who's dealing with the death of his adolescent brother.

At least for its first half, Troche manages to introduce her rag-tag group of characters with an understated focus on life's minute details, careful not to inflate their small, personal stories to pompous heights. The inconsolable despondency of Esther's stunted maternal life is given resonance by Close's closed-off performance, a quiet portrait of grief and rage conveyed through pursed lips and trembling cadences. Similarly, Annette is a woman fraying at the seams, and Clarkson's performance - following on the heels of her splendid work in Far From Heaven and All the Real Girls - naturally blends frazzled anger with an earthy seductiveness masking hopeless grief. On the slender but sturdy shoulders of these two great actresses, Troche wisely balances her film's fate.

Unfortunately, as the characters' lives unfold in increasingly bizarre fashion - Jim becomes Esther's fanatical coach in a radio station contest (a test of endurance that requires her to keep her hands on a car for longer than her competitors); Randy decides to literally replace his brother with a similar-looking child - the director's narrative juggling act comes to a crashing halt, with obvious thematic markers cropping up everywhere in what seems like the director's vain attempt to overtly spell out the film's intentions. The redemptive third act culminates in an act of murder made infinitely more despicable by the disastrous decision to infuse this selfish crime with an unwarranted nobility. Troche may believe that this is a path to healing and happiness, but her unbelievable conclusion never rises above being a dramatically neat and convenient way to provide phony resolution.

The finale's misstep magnifies the fact that the film's most moving relationship is found not in any of the film's tales of woe, but in Jake's budding affair with an inanimate girl's plaything. As the young boy lavishes his plastic girlfriend with soft caresses, extravagant gifts (including a baby grand piano), and sweet nothings in her ear, what is undoubtedly the strangest and funniest romance one is likely to see in a movie theater this year comes to hilarious, poignant life. Too bad that Troche's The Safety of Objects is ultimately more interested in confronting grief with ponderous solemnity and insincere syrupy gestures than with the light, jovial touch one can feel lurking behind the film's oppressively bleak (and, in the end, falsely uplifting) façade.

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The Safety of Objects Rating

" Weak "

Rating: R, 2003


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