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Witness Protection

So you thought <I>your</I> family was dysfunctional. HBO's "Witness Protection" forces a household full of selfish screamers to take advantage of newly discovered quality time. Absorbing only when it details the ritualistic practices employed by the government to ensure safety, the cable web's look at America's most covert operation is otherwise too staged and simple. But it does teach one important lesson: If you snitch, you better love your spouse and kids -- you're gonna be stuck with 'em.

With:
Bobby Batton - Tom Sizemore Cindy Batton - Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Steve Beck - Forest Whitaker Sean Batton - Shawn Hatosy Suzie Batton - Skye McCole Bartusiak With: William Sadler, Richard Portnow, Jim Metzler, Daniel Zacapa, Leon Russom, Harrison Young.

So you thought your family was dysfunctional. HBO’s “Witness Protection” forces a household full of selfish screamers to take advantage of newly discovered quality time. Absorbing only when it details the ritualistic practices employed by the government to ensure safety, the cable web’s look at America’s most covert operation is otherwise too staged and simple. But it does teach one important lesson: If you snitch, you better love your spouse and kids — you’re gonna be stuck with ’em.

Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Robert Sabbag, “Witness” is weighed down by household squabbles that belong on an afternoon talkshow. And although director Richard Pearce extracts fine performances from Tom Sizemore and Forest Whitaker, Daniel Therriault’s teleplay is overstuffed with strained theatrics; felons hitting rock bottom are probably more tolerable when they’re not accompanied by whiny children and marriage problems.

After a hitman fails to kill him at home, career criminal Bobby Batton goes into hiding. Realizing that he can’t run forever, he decides to become a turncoat in exchange for a fresh identity.

But there’s some serious baggage: Wife Cindy (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), teenage son Sean (Shawn Hatosy) and five-year-old daughter Suzie (Skye McCole Bartusiak) are comin’ along, and they’re not thrilled about changing their lives for a man who hasn’t been much of a husband or father.

After saying goodbye to Cindy’s parents, the clan assembles in a top-secret facility teeming with cameras and supervision. Story unfolds within the five days spent orienting the Battons about their upcoming move to … Seattle. They pick a surname — they’re now the Coopers — and U.S. Marshal Steve Beck (Whitaker) goes through an intense orientation in order to smooth their transition: role playing, counseling and discussions about work opportunities. With few marketable skills and no diploma, Bobby is going to have to haul bricks or earn minimum wage at a convenience store.

As the realities sink in and tensions unravel, the Battons’ faith is seriously tested. But there’s no alternative: If anyone leaves, they’re on their own.

“Witness” is certainly deeper than just another kin-in-turmoil drama; while pics usually utilize the Witness Security Program (as it is officially known) as a plot point, this one focuses squarely on the emotional strain it imparts on its participants. As someone trapped by his own undoing, Sizemore is solid, and his bursts of frustration are fierce. Whitaker is also effective as the professional who gets his jollies from seeing a lowlife squirm.

But their perfs can’t undo a rushed execution that leaves many questions unanswered. There has to be more to this secretive society than new furniture, a few meetings and a lot of yelling. And this really isn’t the place for fits about daddy’s lack of involvement in school activities. A trip back to see how the Battons are coping would surely be a better project.

Tech credits are polished.

Witness Protection

HBO; Sat. Dec. 11, 8 p.m.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by HBO Films. Executive producer, Henry Schleiff; producer, Howard Meltzer; co-producers, Tony Mark, Sue Jett; director, Richard Pearce; writer, Daniel Therriault, based on a story by Therriault and Robert Sabbag.

Crew: Camera, Fred Murphy; production designer, Patrizia Van Brandenstein; editor, Lisa Fruchtman; music, Cliff Eidelman; casting, Linda Lowy. Running time: 120 MIN.

Cast: Bobby Batton - Tom Sizemore Cindy Batton - Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Steve Beck - Forest Whitaker Sean Batton - Shawn Hatosy Suzie Batton - Skye McCole Bartusiak With: William Sadler, Richard Portnow, Jim Metzler, Daniel Zacapa, Leon Russom, Harrison Young.

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