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'Deep End': Don't Jump In

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Deep End of the Ocean
Michelle Pfeiffer stars in "The Deep End of the Ocean." (Mandalay Entertainment)

Ulu Grosbard
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Treat Williams;
Whoopi Goldberg;
Jonathan Jackson;
Ryan Merriman
Running Time:
1 hour, 45 minutes
Contains obscenity and explicity talk of sex
There are moments in "The Deep End of the Ocean" that will break your heart. After all, the movie – based on Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel – is about losing a child. This is, essentially, emotional blackmail for anyone with a family. Two hundred monkeys fighting over one word processor could make you cry over material like that.

Yet producer/star Michelle Pfeiffer, director Ulu Grosbard and scriptwriter Stephen Schiff still mess things up. Apart from the previously mentioned occasions, and nice performances from Jonathan Jackson and Ryan Merriman, the movie's a floating longboat that ought to be ignited and pushed out to sea, Viking style.

When Milwaukee mother Beth Cappadora (Pfeiffer) goes to a high-school reunion in Chicago, she takes her young children with her. But when she checks in at the hotel, Beth leaves little Vincent (Cory Buck) and Ben (Michael McElroy) standing by the luggage cart. Suddenly Beth is a tormented mother, handing Ben's photograph to detectives, describing her 3-year-old son's features and habits for the media.

As the minutes become months (the excruciation factor unintentionally boosted by composer Elmer Bernstein's hideously sentimental score), Beth and her husband (Treat Williams) have to live their lives riddled with guilt and uncertainty. Meanwhile, Vincent (now played by Jackson) and his young sister Kerry (Alexa Vega) cope with being virtually ignored.

Too much plot description would spoil the surprise element. But screenwriter Schiff, a former New Yorker writer, treats the characters with the same disregard that Beth does. As time marches on, the emotional content marches out. The movie plots a strange, ellipsis-dotted voyage that avoids emotional high points instead of dealing with them. We're constantly catching up with the characters, after they have undergone their most painful episodes.

Pfeiffer, who seems far too beautiful to actually play a living human being, carries her emotional weight a little too nobly. Her pain seems regal and phoned-in, as if she's working too hard behind the camera to get down and dirty. The emotional center of the movie falls, almost by default, to Jackson as the older Vincent, who deals convincingly with the strange things fate has in store for him, and to Merriman, a sweet-natured kid from the neighborhood who befriends Beth.

As if we're too slow to get the kindergarten subtext, the movie deputizes Whoopi Goldberg as Detective Candy Bliss to essentially drop into Beth's life at convenient moments to explain everything. ("It's not anybody's fault," she informs Beth at the beginning. "Kids disappear all the time." Etc.) Too bad Detective Bliss wasn't on the case when the movie was in early development. She could have called off the whole investigation.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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