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The Deep End of the Ocean

Sea-sick plot eventually reaches solid ground

By Roy Rodenstein

1999, 1 hr 45 min

Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Written by Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard

With Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Jackson and Ryan Merriman

Every day the papers publish stories about child-custody battles, about babies switched at birth or about birth parents changing their mind about giving up a child for adoption. Some of these cases are selfish, which might be well served by King Solomon’s fabled solution of suggesting the child to be cut in half, thus forcing the legitimate parent to step forward and give up their claim to save the child’s life. Others involve parties which have experienced loss and have no need for such artifice -- they both want what’s best for the child. The Deep End of the Ocean deals with an instance of this second kind. Adapted with care by Stephen Schiff, who did an excellent job on the script for the recent Lolita, this film avoids what could have been an ugly movie-of-the-week fate.

Indeed, leading man Treat Williams has seen his share of TV movies. As Pat Cappadora, he starts out here as the mainstay in his family's life. His wife, Beth (Michelle Pfeiffer), attends a class reunion with their three children, and during the hectic check-in loses track of the middle child, Ben. Pat arrives to help look for him, as does agent Candy Bliss (Goldberg), but Ben will not be found that day, or any time during the months it takes until the stream of reality carries the Cappadoras back into its inescapable flow. It is nine years later when Beth sees her lost son again, unwittingly mowing her lawn and living with an adoptive father. From this point on, the movie deals with the common questions. Which family does the boy belong in? Is that boy still Ben?

The Deep End of the Ocean is at first a pool of melodrama. The early scenes of the class reunion are very plain, a quality which does not work well for this charged topic and which plagues the movie frequently. A booming-voiced old classmate is shown standing up in front of the crowd to divide them up for a search, and later a roomful of volunteers takes calls, presumably from people offering leads for the search. These scenes are made of paper, serving simply to fill the blanks in the "kidnapped child plot" page of a film cookbook. Not a single call that the volunteers take is portrayed, and no discussion of where all these seemingly hundreds of calls come from or lead to takes place. We are simply being asked to sit through the slide show and note that every effort was in vain.

Though initially Pfeiffer is unbearably shrill as a panicky mother, while Williams is solid as the calm mainstay, the gender roles reverse as the movie progresses. Pfeiffer comes into her own after the first half in becoming the quiet voice of reason, but Williams is saddled with a character used mostly as a foil; now he is the selfish parent.

In fact, this strong contrast between subtlety and heavy-handedness recurs throughout the movie. It is hard to believe that when Ben is found years later as Sam, son of George Karras, the fact that Sam or George might have something to say about the boy being snatched away into a strange family is not so much as mentioned. It’s as hard to believe that the script eventually decides to deal with the issue after all, and does so beautifully.

Acting is the movie’s major strong point. Though Ben (Ryan Merriman), like the movie, suffers from All-American-Boy syndrome and is often simply too plain, in both appearance and performance, to sustain drama, at other times his earnestness is a boon. The scenes between Ben and Vincent (Jackson) are entrancing, as a long-lost boy and his off-kilter older brother try to make their part of the puzzle work, the adults be damned. John Kapelos, as Ben's adoptive father George Karras, conveys the right mix of covetousness and selflessness in imploring the Cappadoras to take Ben back, but to make him happy as he used to be. Also right are Pfeiffer's scenes with Merriman, as mother grows to respect child as more than an ingredient for a family. There is no stopping Whoopi Goldberg, however, from carrying every scene she is in, including an unnecessary but wonderful bit on workplace sexual harassment.

With the cast keeping the movie rolling through the rough spots, a few golden scenes are achieved. A celebratory dance when the Cappadora family is back together is touchingly underplayed, as are the scenes of jungle-rules basketball between the youngsters. By the end, The Deep End of the Ocean has made the essential things clear.