The Safety of Objects



USA 2001 (released 2003) : Rose TROCHE : 120 mins

Though undeniably uneven, overlong and overambitious, The Safety of Objects is an intriguing addition to the ‘intersecting suburban lives’ sub-genre of which Magnolia remains the finest recent example. The only time Safety of Objects really reaches that kind of league is in its terrific opening titles: the camera pans down to reveal pristine-white model houses, out of which trundle, on grooved tracks, small white dolls representing the four families around whom the narrative will revolve.

In the early stages, writer-director Troche fluently cuts between the various houses and between time-frames, flashing back (in conventional style) from the present to one particular night some months before when a car crash left Paul (Joshua Jackson) in a permanent coma. As the circumstances leading up to the accident slowly fall into place, we grasp the lasting impact of this key traumatic event on Paul’s family, friends, lovers and neighbours.

The Safety of Objects is based on a short story collection by A M Homes, and it shows: we’re squarely within the nuanced, detail-heavy world familiar from late 20th century American literature. What works on the page, of course, doesn’t always translate so well to film – a couple of the pivotal events in the narrative smack of contrivance and coincidence, especially the details of how a child is ‘kidnapped’ by a loner struggling to cope with bereavement.

And while, satisfyingly, this plot-line doesn’t work out as we expect, there are other story developments that are more melodramatic and predictable, such as Paul’s eventual fate. This segment is played out in an especially protracted manner that makes the final half-hour very hard going, and not just because of the harrowing emotional catharsis that racks the guilt-stricken characters. The fact that the middle and latter sections feature a marathon publicity stunt event, in which contestants – including Paul’s mother Esther (Glenn Close) – compete to see who can keep touching a car for the longest time, unhelpfully emphasises the film’s own increasingly sluggish, marathon-like pace.

But there is, ultimately, just enough here to make for a rewarding two hours: Geraldine Peroni’s editing and the score (by ‘Emboznik’, with Barb Morrison, Charles Nieland and Nance Nieland) nimbly connects the various plot strands, and the ensemble makes the most of the sharp dialogue in what is, effectively, a performance showcase (only Dermot Mulroney, as a lawyer suffering an early mid-life crisis, veering close to caricature.) Among all the heavy-going subject-matter, it’s surprising to find so much humour that works so well: there’s a running gag involving a pre-adolescent boy and his ongoing dialogues with his sister’s Barbie doll – who not only ‘talks’ back but even appears to ‘move’ on occasion when particularly roused.

28th June, 2003
(seen 5th June: Showcase, Dudley)

by Neil Young