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Split-level melodrama

Safety of Objects weaves its human tapestry a bit too tightly


We know we are in the depths of suburban ennui from the opening credits of The Safety of Objects. The credit sequence features a cluster of spanking-white dollhouses from which tiny ivory effigies of the characters emerge, moving herky-jerky on little tracks. In the familiar wisdom of such melodramas, the families and the neighbors who live in such close proximity are essentially strangers -- robotic figurines on their individual life tracks.

Director Rose Troche (Go Fish) has merged the worlds of Ang Lee's Ice Storm, Sam Mendes' American Beauty and the lace-work human tapestry of Robert Altman's Short Cuts into a comparable study of heavily populated anomie in one Manhattan suburb.

The Safety of Objects, based on A.M. Homes' collection of short stories, has blended those distinct tales into one overripe, compacted head cheese. As a result, the film feels stuffed to the gills. It's over-plotted and overrun with characters so abundant with human quirkiness, fragility and tenderness, it's like some kind of Hallmark cabaret. Too quickly hustled through the story, the characters have no time to actually communicate, so they speak in a clipped shorthand suggesting self-help seminars or bumper sticker slogans: "I love me," "Working a 12-hour-day does not make you a better person," and "It's the life you've made. Live with it."

Troche's film never moves fundamentally beyond the impression established in its arresting credit sequence -- that these are just Troche's little chess pieces moved around a board of plot and story but with no true life or depth of their own. Instead of feasible characters, Troche gives us extreme situations translated awkwardly from Homes' stories, such as an adolescent boy with a sexual crush on a doll and a housewife who has a spiritual epiphany at a shopping mall.

The intoxicating Patricia Clarkson is, like most of the characters here, just human driftwood, carried along in the insistent current of Troche's storytelling. The generally entrancing actress is wasted as recent divorcee Annette Jennings, who appears to begin her drinking at a neighborhood bar the second she drops her autistic daughter at school.

Like all of the characters in Safety, Annette has been personally touched by the car accident that left one neighborhood child dead and put another one into a permanent coma. At night, as she prepares for bed, Annette can look out her window and see into the room where teenager Paul Gold (Joshua Jackson), once a talented musician, lays inert in a hospital bed. Like all of the perspectives in this hive of suburban homes, every window has a view directly into the next-door neighbor's. Troche uses that smashed-together atmosphere to show us the proximity that makes these neighbors and family members so intimate, and yet so distant.

While Clarkson tends to her two shell-shocked children, Paul Gold's family reels from another devastation. The accident has left the family in shambles, especially the relationship between Esther Gold (Glenn Close) and her daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell). Julie is engaged in a perverse war of sibling rivalry with her comatose brother and demands a Christ-like sacrifice from Esther.

Esther agrees to participate in an undignified radio show promotion in which contestants spend days standing, without sleep, in order to win a car. Neighborhood lawyer Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) is experiencing his own crisis of faith after he is passed up for promotion at his firm, and he latches onto the contest and his stoic neighbor Esther as an outlet for his charitable impulses. He becomes Esther's cheerleader, offering her a pup tent to take her breaks in, fueling her resolve with protein bars. Like other moments in Safety, there are some blips of significance on Troche's otherwise blank radar. The martyrdom and self-flagellation Esther undergoes for both her son's and daughter's sakes is one of the most true and ultimately touching insights in the film.

While that Freudian battle of wills goes on between Esther and Julie in the atrium of a shopping mall, neighbor Helen Christianson's (Mary Kay Place) marriage is so far-gone, her husband actually gets furious at her when she tries to initiate sex. And Jim is so busy coaching Esther at the mall, he has failed to notice that his son Jake (Alex House) has fallen passionately in love with his sister's Barbie doll.

Is it any wonder that Jake has a profound, sexually complex relationship with a doll in the film? She is nearly as charismatic, if not more so, than the android-types of this middlebrow Stepford.

Though some of these characters eventually grow on you, for a great portion of this split-level melodrama it's hard to summon up enough interest in these blandly troubled folk as they experience the tidy little epiphanies that will lead them to the film's cathartic Last Supper of fellowship and understanding.

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