The very definition of family is contested in Ulu Grosbard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean,” an engaging, often heart-wrenching drama that juxtaposes the biological and sociological definitions of family ties. As the modern parents who are forced to re-examine their values when their son disappears and, years later, returns, Michelle Pfeiffer and Treat Williams give such magnetic performances that they elevate the film way above its middlebrow sensibility and proclivity for neat resolutions. Obviously targeted at mature, middle-aged viewers, this timely drama, 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 Stephen Gyllenhaal’s adoption meller “Losing Isaiah” (1995), new pic is similarly compromised in its effort to please all parties involved in the current debate over the essential meaning of family.
Basically a story in which there are no winners, “Deep End” calls for deeper moral ambiguity, but in a typical Hollywood manner, last reel provides clear-cut resolution of every tension-ridden relationship: husband and wife, mother and son, brother and brother.
Based on Jacquelyn Mitchard’s popular 1996 novel, tale begins extremely well by introducing the happily married Cappadoras: Beth (Pfeiffer), a loving wife and devoted mother who’s also trying to maintain a photographic career, and hubby Pat (Williams), who dreams of opening his own restaurant. Arriving with her three small children in tow for a 15th-year high school reunion in a Chicago hotel, Beth asks her eldest, Vincent, to take care of his 3-year-old brother, Ben, while she registers. Moments later, Ben disappears, seemingly without a trace, and a frantic search begins in the crowded hotel.
Local police are responsive and helpful, assigning tenacious detective Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg) to the case. In the first reel, Pfeiffer is brilliant as an anxious mother consumed with finding her lost son. Dominating scene after scene, she conveys anguish and guilt in an all-out performance that ranks with her best.
First 40 minutes provide a detailed chronicle, day by day, month by month, of the devastating effects of Ben’s disappearance on his family, particularly Beth, whose inability to cope with the crisis sends her into deep depression and creates enormous tensions with her understanding husband and children.
Story then jumps ahead nine years, when, out of the blue, a boy named Sam (Ryan Merriman) knocks on the family’s door in Chicago and offers to mow 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, it becomes clear Sam is indeed their son.
Pic’s second half details the family’s adjustment, with the requisite pitfalls and obstacles, to Sam’s presence. There’s a lovely scene in which his homecoming is celebrated in a restaurant with Italian music and dance. But 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 adoptive father and runs away, and Beth clashes with Pat over the issue of responsibility to the boy and their need to transcend “selfish” interests. Still feeling guilty over his negligence on the fateful day in the hotel, teenage Vincent begins having behavioral problems.
Like the aforementioned “Losing Isaiah,” “Deep End” presents a hot-button issue for which there is no satisfying resolution. In the former film’s unconvincing ending, two mothers, the black biological mom and the white adoptive one, share responsibilities for their son’s education. While “Deep End” doesn’t suggest such an entirely happy coda, it does go out of its way to effect a balancing act that lacks ambiguity. 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.
But whatever reservations one may have about the narrative, Grosbard’s meticulous direction is impressive. Perfs are flawless across the board, particularly Pfeiffer as the imperfect mother, Williams as the old-fashioned dad whose motto remains “Everything will be OK,” and Jonathan Jackson (TV’s “General Hospital”) as Vincent. Jackson shows strong potential as a romantic lead.
Playing a lesbian for the second time (after “Boys on the Side”), Goldberg excels as detective Bliss. In her opening scene, she reveals her sexual orientation to Beth in the most matter-of-fact manner, a vast improvement over gay roles as they are routinely scripted.
Coming from the theater, Grosbard has always coaxed strong performances from his handpicked 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 serve as models for efficient storytelling, representing mainstream cinema at its best.