Deep End of the Ocean, The: Ulu Grosbard’s Family Drama Starring Michelle Pfeiffer

The very definition of what constitutes a family is contested in Ulu Grosbard’s The Deep End of the Ocean, an engaging, often heartwrenching drama that juxtaposes the biological versus sociological approach to family ties.

As the young, modern parents, who’re forced to reexamine their basic value system when their son disappears and then years later, reappears, Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams give such magnetically appealing performances that they elevate the film way above its middlebrow, occasionally TV-like sensibility and its proclivity toward neat resolutions. Obviously targeted at mature, middle-aged viewers, this timely sociodrama, which is Grosbard’s most technically accomplished film, should do reasonably well at the B.O. as a prestige, issue-oriented spring release.

Though veering away from the simplicity and narrative bumps that damaged the adoption meller Losing Isiah (1995), Hollywood’s last foray into the turbulent waters of family life, The Deep End of the Ocean is similarly compromised in its effort to please all parties involved in the current debate over the essential meaning of family as a socio-cultural unit.

Basically a story in which there are no winners, Deep End calls for deeper moral ambiguity and unresolved conflicts, but in a typical Hollywood manner, last reel provides clear-cut settlements for every tension-ridden relationship: husband and wife, mother and son, brother and brother.

Based on Jacquelyn Mitchard’s popular 1996 novel, adapted to the screen by Stephen Schiff, tale begins extremely well by introducing a happily married couple: Beth (Pfeiffer), a loving wife and devoted mother, who’s also trying to maintain a photographer’s career, and hubby Pat (Williams), who dreams of opening his own restaurant. Arriving with her three small children in tow for a 15th highschool reunion in a Chicago Hotel, Beth asks her eldest, Vincent, to take care of his 3-year-old brother Ben, while she goes to register. Moments later, Ben disappears, seemingly without a trace, and a frantic search begins in the crowded hotel.

Local police turns out to be responsive and helpful, assigning a tenacious detective, Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg), to the case. In the first reel, Pfeiffer is nothing short of brilliant as an anxious mother, utterly consumed with finding her lost son. Dominating scene after scene, Pfeiffer conveys the anguish and guilt in an all-out performance that ranks with her very best.

First 40 minutes provide a detailed chronicle, day by day, month by month, of the devastating effects of Ben’s vanishing over his family, particularly Beth, whose inability to cop with the crisis sends her into deep depression and create insurmountable tensions with her understanding husband and children.

Turning point occurs in Christmas, when Pat’s mother (Rose Gregario) visits the Cappadoras and brings gifts to each one of them, including Ben. Beth explodes, claiming that “it’s over,” and that all she wants is “to sleep through” the ordeal.

Story then jumps ahead to Chicago, 9 years later, when, out of the blue, a boy named Sam (Ryan Merriman) knocks on the door and offers his services to maw their lawn. Beth immediately recognizes him as her lost son; hysterically, she examines his moves while snapping photos of him. With the assistance of Candy, who has become a close friend over the years, the police break into Sam’s house and take him away from his father, George Karras (John Kapelos). It turns out that Sam was kidnapped by one of Beth’s former classmates, who went on to marry the good and loving George, without ever telling him the truth about their son.

Pic’s second half details the adjustment process, with the requisite pitfalls and obstacles, by each member of the family to Sam’s new presence. There’s a lovely scene, in which Sam’s homecoming is celebrated in a restaurant with Italian music and dance. However, having been raised by a Greek father, Sam breaks into a Zorba-like dance, encouraging his bewildered parents and all the other guests to join him.

Predictably, in due course, Sam misses his sociological father and runs away, and Beth clashes with Pat over the issue of responsibility to the boy and their need to beyond “selfish” interests. Still feeling guilty over his neglect at the fateful day in the hotel, Vincent turns into a problematic teenager and is thrown into jail.

Like the aforementioned Losing Isaiah, Deep End presents a hot-button issue that can’s have a viable or satisfying resolution. In the former film’s fake ending, two mothers, the black biological mom and the white adoptive one, share responsibilities over their son’s education. While Deep End doesn’t suggest such an entirely happy coda, it does go out of its way to present an affecting balancing act that lacks ambiguity and uncertainty. The audience knows that Sam will never be as happy as he was with his adoptive father, and that his new-old biological nest also leaves much to be desired.

Nonetheless, whatever reservations critics may have with the narrative, Grosbard’s meticulous direction is impressive. Performances across the board are flawless, particularly Pfeiffer as the imperfect mother, Williams as the old-fashioned dad whose motto remains “everything will be O.K.,” and Jonathan Jackson (TV’s General Hospital) as Vincent, a young actor who shows strong potential as a romantic lead.

Playing a lesbian for the second time (the first was in Boys on the Side), Goldberg excels as detective Candy. In her opening scene, she reveals her sexual orientation to Beth in the most matter of fact manner, a vast improvement over routine scripted gay roles, though what’s missing from this portrait is a personal dimension. Current Hollywood trend, which is becoming a clich, is to have gays as the stars’ best friends, with no romantic or sexual lives of their own.

Coming from the theater, Grosbard has always coaxed strong performances form his hand-picked casts, but Deep End’s technical sheen places this outing at the top of his oeuvre. Stephen Goldblatt’s clean lensing, Elmer Bernstein’s evocative score, Dan Davis’ crafty production design, Susie DeSanto’s authentic costumes, and particularly John Bloom’s fluent editing, should serve as models for efficient story-telling, representing mainstream cinema at its very best.