Rose Troche's "The Safety of Objects" is too much of a good thing. In interweaving the fates of four neighboring families in a leafy suburb, Troche, who drew from the short stories of A.M. Homes, tackled one household too many.
While Mary Kay Place, as Helen, a middle-age housewife experiencing the slings and arrows of a stale marriage, is as impressive as Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney and Patricia Clarkson, her character's problems are scarcely earthshaking alongside the crises facing the film's other three principals. In short, "The Safety of Objects" is so intense emotionally that had it come in half an hour earlier it could have retained far greater impact.
It should be said, however, that even with that flaw, it has much to offer, for it gives Close, Mulroney and Clarkson, among others, an opportunity to delve into roles of much depth and range and emerge with knockout portrayals under Troche's inspired and supportive direction.
For months, Close's Esther Gold has hovered over the bedside of her son Paul (Joshua Jackson), hopelessly comatose since a car accident. In denial over his true state, she has dedicated her life to his care at the increasing expense of her edgy young daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell) and distant husband, Howard (Robert Klein). Meanwhile, the family of Esther's neighbor Jim Train (Mulroney) has suffered from his single-minded dedication to his job as lawyer in a big firm.
Out of the blue, Esther finds herself caught up in a mall marathon in which the person who can keep one hand on an expensive car longest wins it. Hoping to capture her attention, Julie has entered her mother in the contest, which has the effect of spinning the initially resistant Esther out of her debilitating routines, giving her time and space to think about her life and Paul realistically. She's inspired to try to win the car to give to her daughter to make up to her for her neglect. Esther's attempt captures the deeply troubled Jim's imagination, and he dedicates himself to supporting her effort. The contest, a crass promotional gimmick, is just off-kilter enough to provide focus and balance to the earnest, driven types that are Esther and Jim.
In the meantime, their neighbor, Helen's friend Annette (Clarkson), a pretty and resilient divorcée, is dealing with the ex-husband from hell (Andrew Airlie), who not only is way behind on child support but also hasn't visited his kids in four months. When they're less than thrilled to see him, this dunderhead declares it's proof that Annette has turned them against him. He nevertheless insists that his tomboyish daughter Sam (Kristen Stewart) will join him on an upcoming vacation, which leads to mistaken assumptions and tense developments.
This is a lot to be going on, both comical and harrowing, yet there's even more, including the hidden angst of a sexy pool man (Timothy Olyphant) who attracts both Annette and Helen and a delicately observed rendering of Jim's son Jake (Alex House) struggling with puberty. Olyphant, Stewart and House are all incisive, as is Moira Kelly as Jim's sensible but under-sensitive wife.
The notion that life in the deceptively tranquil suburbs can be as chancy as in the big city is hardly freshly minted nor is the interlocking fates of neighbors. Best known for her landmark lesbian romantic comedy "Go Fish," Troche transcends "The Safety of Objects' " inherent aura of contrivance and soap opera by creating a screen filled with real people and setting them off with shrewd structuring, involving a particularly deft use of flashbacks. For all of Troche's skill and talent, "The Safety of Objects" (a splendid title) nevertheless tries to cover too much territory. In movies, as elsewhere, a little less sometimes can add up to a lot more.
'The Safety of Objects'
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content and language
Times guidelines: Sexually frank dialogue and situations, mature themes
Glenn Close ... Esther Gold
Dermot Mulroney ... Jim Train
Patricia Clarkson ... Annette Jennings
Mary Kay Place ... Helen Christianson
Timothy Olyphant ... Randy
Jessica Campbell ... Julie Gold
An IFC Films presentation in association with Clear Blue Sky Productions and Renaissance Films of an Infilm/Killer Films production. Writer-director Rose Troche. Based on the book of stories by A.M. Homes. Executive producers Stephen Evans, Angus Finney, Jody Patton, Pamela Koffler. Producers Dorothy Berwin, Christine Vachon. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Music Emboznik (Barb Morrison, Charles Nieland, Nance Nieland). Costumes Laura Jean Shannon. Production designer Andrea Stanley. Art director Craig Lathrop. Set decorator Liesl DesLauriers. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.