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With: Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, Dermot Mulroney, Moira Kelly, Mary Kay Place, Joshua Jackson, Robert Klein, Timothy Olyphant
Written by: Rose Troche, based on short stories by A.M. Homes
Directed by: Rose Troche
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language
Running Time: 121
Date: 04/24/2001

The Safety of Objects (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Residential Hysteria

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Rose Troche made a glorious debut with 1994's Go Fish, withits giddy black-and-white vision of lesbian romance in Chicago. Shefollowed it up with 1999's Bedrooms and Hallways, an even moreaccomplished romantic comedy bursting with full color and with anenthusiastic appreciation of London.

With her third film, The Safety of Objects, she jumps backwards into the American suburbs, and it feels like a major misstep. The film skips back and forth between several short stories (originally written by A.M. Homes), which depend more upon atmosphere than on plot. And yet, Troche somehow fails to give them much of either.

In the film, four suburban families attempt to cope with life's little mishaps. The Gold family suffers while their son Paul lies in a coma, the victim of a car accident. The mother Esther (Glenn Close) spends all her time weeping over him and pampering him while neglecting her husband (Robert Klein) and her daughter (Jessica Campbell).

The second family has Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson) also trying to deal with Paul's accident -- she was his secret lover, though she's much older. She struggles in a crummy job to try and make ends meet and to support her kids.

In the third family, Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) has become so involved with his work that he can no longer communicate with his wife Susan (Moira Kelly), and their children. Moreover, his young son Jake (Alex House) has developed a fixation on his sister's Barbie-like "Tani" doll, talking to her, imagining her talking back and even fantasizing about sex. (The sultry Guinevere Turner, who co-wrote and starred in "Go Fish," provides the doll's voice.)

Finally, the Christianson family has Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) looking for a little extramarital excitement when her husband fails to provide any of his own.

The stories criss-cross and interlock, most crucially when a barfly (Timothy Olyphant) that Annette has flirted with kidnaps her daughter Samantha (Kristen Stewart). In addition, Jim finds a new lease on life when Esther enters a "hands on a hard body" contest at the local mall. He becomes her cheerleader, providing drinks, massages and whatever else she may need during the grueling contest.

Taking far too many cues from Happiness and Magnolia, Troche shoots the movie in a kind of bland, sunny, widescreen emptiness, the way we city-dwellers might envision suburbia.

And while we're talking redundancies, S.R. Bindler's excellent 1998 documentary Hands on a Hard Body far better represents the horrors of that strange contest. Troche's truncated version only faintly echoes it.

Still, Troche is far too talented and this cast is far too good to write off The Safety of Objects as a complete failure. It's more of a miscalculation, as if Troche thought she could inject some much-needed energy into the material.

And Patricia Clarkson in particular has grown recently into one of our very best actresses in films like The Pledge, Wendigo, Welcome to Collinwood, Far from Heaven and All the Real Girls. She has an earthy sexiness and a weary intelligence that allow her to flip-flop between down-and-out misfits and well-to-do women. It's almost worth seeing "The Safety of Objects" for her alone.

When Robert Altman made the superb Short Cuts out of Raymond Carver's spare, desperate stories he captured the essence of those stories, the soul that made them great. Troche's adaptation comes across as too literal, and the characters mostly slip through our grasp.

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