"God has a wicked sense of humor," says Esther, a suffering suburban housewife played by Glenn Close in "The Safety of Objects." God may, but this film doesn't. Based on a collection of short stories by A.M. Homes, "The Safety of Objects" is yet more suburban noir, an attempt to be edgy with a familiar cast of characters: aging nymphos, high-functioning drunks, shady lawn boys, unhappy wives, aimless husbands and insufferable children. None of them is nasty enough to be interesting, nor nice enough to be sympathetic. They are all white, privileged and mostly affluent, and they reside near each other in a nameless, characterless, lives-of-quiet-desperation neighborhood.
Esther's problem is her son Paul, left unconscious and paraplegic after some terrible accident. Director Rose Troche holds the accident in reserve, showing us the many ripples of pain and loss before revealing exactly what happened in those two cars on that fateful night. It's a cliche, and its effect on audience suspense (or even curiosity) is about as inert as poor Paul.
Woven into this basic tale of people who just can't get past the bad place are other tales of people who can't get past other bad places. Jim Train, played by Dermot Mulroney, has just discovered that he's going nowhere in his career as a lawyer, so he drops out, goes shopping and throws a temper tantrum. Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) can't get over her divorce even though all evidence suggests that her ex is a narcissistic lout. So she finds solace in drink and tries to seduce the hunky gardener.
The hunky gardener, it seems (though it's not entirely clear), is also the neighborhood pervy guy, though -- like everyone else in this film -- he's so bad at following through on things that he borrows children but doesn't molest them. But again, it's not certain what he was after because, along with being riddled with dozens of quick cuts from scene to scene, the film also leaves most of the interesting questions unanswered.
Homes's stories explored the relation of people to the objects they collect, possess, obsess over and depend upon. That theme is inadequately developed in the screenplay, written by Troche. There is a distressing clutter of objects throughout the film: toys, cereal boxes, furniture, exercise equipment, Pop-Tarts, cars, all the detritus of modern life. But the basic premise -- that sometimes we must take out the emotional trash -- becomes clear too late and too faintly to have much emotional resonance.
Only Close is capable of speaking the poetry, those moments of wisdom that come to harried housewives at the most inopportune times, that mark the film's literary origins. The odd little twists and bizarre discoveries that, in small doses, can make for amusing short stories are jumbled together in a movie that never finds a consistent tone. There is, from time to time, humor, including a delightfully precocious sexual relationship between a pubescent boy and his sister's Barbie (or Barbie-like) doll. But it's humor that feels all too calculated to be subversive. It doesn't so much lighten a very dark film as temporarily derail it.
The Safety of Objects (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content and language.