movie review by
Gary Johnson


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The Deep End of the Ocean
The Deep End of the Ocean treads the same ground long cherished by made-for-TV movies. It's prime material for despair and anguish--the kind of material that TV talk show fans love to feast upon: a woman's son is abducted by a stranger and years later the mother stumbles upon the boy. Can the mother, father, and the children become a family again? (Not surprisingly, author Jacquelyn Mitchard's best-selling book, The Deep End of the Ocean, was catapulted to the top of the best-seller lists after Oprah Winfrey included it as a prime selection in her book club.)

TV movies tend to exploit child-abduction cases like this one for all the melodrama they can get, providing plenty of camera shots of the anguished mother racing around a playground or park, frantically looking for her child as her expression quickly moves from apprehension to terror. However, director Ulu Grosbard (who also directed The Subject Was Roses) refuses to treat the situation as melodrama. Instead of feeding on despair directly, Grosbard allows despair to quietly grow within the characters. Some of the characters handle the despair better than others. For example, the father (played by Treat Williams) almost thrives on the despair. He holds the family together while the mother slides toward a mental breakdown. And their other son, Vincent--who lives with the guilt of not watching his younger brother--has frequent run-ins with the law.

These characters live with their despair in relative isolation. Instead of preying upon the characters, hoping for emotional outbursts, the camera settles into the paths that their lives take after the abduction and allows us to become familiar with the family. Neither does the story make any easy villains. When the son does indeed show up over a decade later, we discover he's happy and quite content with his life. This situation sets up the movie's main conflict: should the son be ripped away from the only family he has ever known and returned to his real parents, or should he be allowed to stay with the man who raised him, a man he considers to be his real father?

Michelle Pfeiffer plays the mother, Beth Cappadora, and it's her movie all the way. Indeed, the movie is a throwback to the star vehicles of the '30s or '40s, where the dramas were built around strong actresses such as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. The camera focuses on Pfeiffer in virtually every scene in the movie. Only on rare occasion does anyone else grab the spotlight. That's both good and bad for the movie. On the plus side, Pfeiffer is a formidable screen presence who knows the value of subtlety. However, Beth Cappadora's only failing is that she allows her obsession with her son's disappearance to nearly rip her family apart. In other words, the screenplay's focus on Beth is somewhat one-dimensional and not particularly compelling (although in the hands of Ms. Pfeiffer, Beth is never less than a fully-rounded character).

Fortunately, however, The Deep End of the Ocean is equipped with a character even more compelling than Beth--her son, Vincent. Vincent was supposed to hold his three-year-old brother's hand in a crowded hotel lobby, but he let his brother wander off. So he lives with the guilt of the disappearance (not unlike Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People living with the guilt of his brother's drowning). In a key moment we see him sneaking down a staircase to listen in as his mother and father talk, and we sense the confusion he feels about how the family has been disrupted. Because the movie is primarily about Beth, it never allows us to see Vincent except when Beth is somewhere nearby (a 50-yard rule seems to be in effect). So while we get several easily dispensable scenes with Whoopi Goldberg as a police detective investigating the disappearance, the story keeps us at arm's length from Vincent. Not surprisingly, the story itself builds toward a resolution that involves both sons, while Beth can only watch. So the film's structure recognizes the importance of Vincent while also quietly shuffling him to the background for the bulk of the movie.

Jonathan Jackson plays the teenage Vincent. He's only 15 years old, but he has already won two Emmy awards for his work on the daytime soap opera General Hospital. He's a strong presence on screen, who manages to suggest a deep inner life for his character with a minimum of screen time.

As is, The Deep End of the Ocean is a good movie. Director Ulu Grosbard has delivered a sensitive, non-manipulative movie that deals with the characters honestly. But imagine Ordinary People if the drama had focused on Mary Tyler Moore as the mother instead of Timothy Hutton as the son, and you'll have a sense of how this movie is an example of a drama focusing on the wrong character.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]