Ulu Grosbard's Deep End of the Ocean has some powerful moments that will send you reaching for the Kleenex, but, as a whole, it lacks the wallop it should have packed.
Maybe that's because it feels so much like an abridged version of Jacquelyn Mitchard's best-seller, despite a competent screenplay by Stephen Schiff (who so splendidly penned the screenplay for the updated Lolita). The book was long--434 pages--and felt it. But it at least provided some much-needed exposition. Though the film faithfully follows the book right down to its disappointingly tidy ending, there are a few too many holes. If you've read the book, you can fill in the blanks. If you haven't, you'll see the glaring gaps.
The film, which is really about the aftermath of tragedy, begins as the story of a parent's worst nightmare. Beth (Michelle Pfeiffer), a photographer who has put her career on hold to raise three children in the suburbs, has for some unexplained reason dragged them along to her class reunion in Chicago while her husband Pat stays home to tend to the family restaurant. She instructs her 7-year-old to watch his little brother while she checks in. When she turns around mere minutes later, 3-year-old Ben is gone. Despite a lobby full of people, no one has seen the child. His older brother, Vincent, offers no clues either. When the anxious minutes drag into hours and still there is no sign of Ben, panic sets in, the police are called and the search begins--so does the unraveling of Beth and her family.
Pfeiffer plays the anguished mother so convincingly that her performance can't help but move you. Her face becomes a portrait of despair. When she collapses to the floor of the hotel lobby shrieking her son's name, there isn't a dry eye in the house. But then, the film is primarily a vehicle for Pfeiffer. Treat Williams, who we don't see on screen often enough, plays the rock of the family, though the way his role is written it's hard to get much more of a fix on his character. His grief hardly mirrors the intensity of his wife's. If Beth Cappadora's role becomes that of the sufferer, Pat Cappadora's function is to hold the family together as Beth sinks into a pathological depression.
Issues of guilt and blame arise all around; the disorganized Beth sees herself as a terrible mother. Wallowing in self-reproach, she neglects the two children she does have. When she laughs in spite of herself she breaks into tears, feeling guilty for letting go of her suffering even momentarily. Detached and despondent, she's merely going through the motions of having a life. "It's like I'm standing under a giant snowbank and if I move 1 inch it'll come crashing down on me," she tells her husband.
The film jumps ahead nine years. The marriage is suffering, though we don't see much more evidence than a few desperate moments in which Pat finally shows emotion, screaming "children don't get lost; people lose them," and accusing Beth of "making a career out of being unhappy."
The teenage Vincent (General Hospital's Jonathan Jackson in a magnificent turn) is suffering, too, in the "bell jar of family silence." The 16-year-old can barely conceal his resentment, anger and overriding guilt. (In the book, much more is made of his character. For instance, he's in therapy, an important detail the film inexplicably omits). His relationship with his mother is strained, and he's acting out to get the attention he craves. This is a devastated family that may pretend to be getting along, but is non-communicative and unable to confront its collective grief. It's a family drama in the tradition of Ordinary People, though that film was far better delineated.
Mitchard's story grows more complex when a 12-year-old boy who looks just like police composites of an aged Ben shows up on the Cappadora's front porch offering to mow the lawn. This child has no memory of the Cappadoras; he's perfectly happy living with the man who has been his adoptive father the last nine years.
Now two families are forced to deal with the loss of a child. John Kapelos is very sympathetic as the hapless man whose much beloved son is torn from him. "It's like we're the kidnappers now," Beth says in a pained moment of realization. Already alienated, Vincent sees Ben as a stranger. "You're a concept," he tells him. And Ben feels like he's being punished for something that wasn't his fault. How will they all adjust?
While the book had pages to develop various scenarios, the film's time limitations are a definite handicap. Not only does the film begin feeling like melodrama, but here come the holes: Michael McElroy, for instance, is problematic as Ben. He fails to give his character any definition. His Ben is too much like a fresh-faced kid plucked straight from a sitcom. He's as cheery and well-adjusted as Beaver Cleaver, although he's been abruptly rooted from a loved father and handed over to strangers. He may cry into his pillow a few times, but he never seems upset, let alone traumatized.
The biggest problem is the film's ending, which is strictly the fault of the book on which it is patterned. It doesn't work well at all. It's too easy, too unbelievable, and has the unfortunate effect of negating everything else this story tried to do. You may shed the tears, but when the credits role you're left feeling that too much is missing.