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The Safety of Objects (June 5/03)

Like Short Cuts and Magnolia before it, The Safety of Objects is the latest film to follow the lives of several characters that may or may not have a connection to each other. And while it's generally entertaining and superbly acted, the movie doesn't quite have the same emotional punch as those aforementioned flicks.

Set in a wealthy surburban neighborhood, The Safety of Objects occurs over the space of a couple of days. We're introduced to the various characters in a clever opening sequence, featuring a white mock-up of the neighborhood with toys standing in for the inhabitants of several houses. As we soon discover, everyone here has some kind of monkey on their back - whether it's Esther (Glenn Close), who's caring for his coma-afflicted son (Joshua Jackson), or Jim (Dermot Mulroney), a hard-working man that's finding it almost impossible to connect with his wife and children. Of course, as the film progresses, each of these characters begins to examine the root of their misery - which either leads to a catharsis of some sort or more misery.

The problem with The Safety of Objects (which is quite a good film, don't get me wrong) is that a few of these storylines either feel as if they've been forcefully been jammed into the movie or they just don't seem organic to the characters. An example of the former would be the plight of Jake (Alex House), Jim's son, whose loneliness and active imagination has led him into a relationship with a Barbie doll belonging to his sister. The doll even talks to Jake, occasionally chastising him for not standing up for her. And though there are some laughs to be had out of this subplot (particularly in a sequence that finds Jake and the doll under a table in a local pizzeria), the whole thing is just too silly to really be taken seriously. Likewise, the progression of Mulroney's character from responsible family man to obsessed personal trainer feels rushed - it's just about the only aspect of the film that doesn't seem entirely organic (it's the sort of subplot that would only happen in a movie).

Having said that, there's a lot worth recommending about the film. The most intriguing character here is Esther, without a doubt. Though her son has been in a coma for months, she refuses to give up hope - taking time every day to talk to him, and ensure that he's comfortable. As the film goes on, we discover that Esther's daughter, Julie (Jessica Campbell), feels a certain amount of resentment towards her brother; as we eventually learn, though, there might just be a little guilt in there as well. It's certainly the most compelling aspect of the film, strengthened by relative newcomer Campbell's fantastic performance. Other storylines - including single mom Annette (Patricia Clarkson) and the mysterious handyman played by Timothy Olyphant - are just as effective in establishing a sense of loss amongst these characters. Finally, there's a song that essentially opens and closes the film that initially seems to be quite depressing, but finally becomes about redemption; it's a fantastic device put to great effect by writer/director Rose Troche.

The Safety of Objects is certainly worth checking out for the various actors, but those in search of a film with the searing impact of Magnolia will probably be somewhat disappointed.

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© David Nusair