No "Safety" (Or Satisfaction) in "Bringing Down" the Suburbs
- Thursday, March 06, 2003
What’s so terrible about suburban life?
Am I the only guy in America who feels grateful every day to live in a comfortable house with a view of a lake, a three car garage, a pretty wife, and three good kids? The statistics and surveys indicate that most families own their own homes and feel overwhelmingly pleased and proud with the lives they’ve managed to build for themselves.
Why, then, does Hollyweird invariably insist on portraying middle class existence as an unending torment and depicting even our most privileged suburbs as hell on earth?
Two more star-studded message movies arrive on the first Friday in March to convey this simplistic, screechy message—a hackneyed, dishonest theme that passes for profound social criticism in today’s pop culture. The Safety of Objects, a grandly ambitious art film, and Bringing Down the House, a sleazy, stupidly exploitative Steve Martin comedy, both offer intermittent interludes of insight and entertainment, but both will cause depression and distress for any moviegoer with a modicum of sensitivity.
The Safety of Objects deploys an ensemble cast of capable professionals to emphasize the cruelties and loneliness of middle class households in the haunted spirit of American Beauty--but with no character as sympathetic or intriguing as Kevin Spacey’s hero in that insanely over-praised and Oscar-winning film. Glenn Close plays a heart-broken mother who obsessively nurses her adored teenaged son (Joshua Jackson), lying in a coma after a mysterious accident. She largely ignores her workaholic husband (Robert Klein) and sexually rebellious daughter (Jessica Campbell). Next door lies a slightly slutty single mom (Patricia Clarkson, who made a strong impression as the nosy neighbor in Far From Heaven, another suburbs-basher) struggling to raise one borderline autistic kid and a pre-teen girl (Kristen Stewart) who’s so boyish that it comes as a shock to both viewers and on key character when she turns out to be female. Dermot Mulroney and Moira Kelly play the best-looking yuppie couple on the block, but he goes through a squirm-inducing nervous breakdown when he fails to make partner in his law firm, and their son (Alex House) devotes most of his love and lust to an impassioned relationship with a Barbie doll he carries with him everywhere. Mary Kay Place (who invariably turns up in any “socially serious” movie with an ensemble cast) portrays the aging spouse to a sexist pig, longing to seduce the hunky pool man (Timothy Olyphant) who is more interested in kidnapping and possibly molesting children than in seducing women.
Writer-director Rose Troche, previously best known for her nearly unwatchable Lesbian-lonely-hearts movie Go Fish, here adapts various short stories by A.M. Homes and cobbles them together with a much-too-cute device: all these suffering characters connect in some fateful way to the mysterious accident that put Joshua Jackson in a coma. Only at the end of the movie do we finally get to see that mishap, but by that time most viewers will be in their own coma, or in a deep sleep, or at least a blue funk.
The excellent and intense performances (especially by Glenn Close and Timothy Olyphant) make you feel the pain and hopelessness of these materially privileged people, but it’s impossible to like any of them. The promotional materials for the film proclaim that each of these people is “smothered by the posh comforts of the material objects that surround them,” but even if you made a huge bonfire of all their stuff they would still come across as selfish, self-destructive, shallow jerks. An unbearably vulgar radio contest in which several of the main characters get involved in competing for a free car that none of them need constitutes one of the plot’s dramatic highlights, as the picture takes a full two hours to hammer away relentlessly at its central point: that in frantic pursuit of material well-being and “the safety of objects” these pathetic creatures squander any joy in life and all chance for loving or meaningful connection.
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