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Pfeiffer, Jackson shine amidst a poorly written screenplay

The Deep End of the Ocean
Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Jackson, Ryan Merriman, John Kapelos, Michael McElroy, Cory Buck, and Alexa Vega
Screenplay: Stephen Schiff, based on the novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Producers: Frank Capra III, Kate Guinzberg, Steve Nicolaides, and Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Ulu Grosbard
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language and thematic elements

Michelle Pfeiffer fought to the bitter end, trying desperately to change the ending of this film as written. Her opinion was trounced by studio execs, and yet I fear that her choice may have been the correct one. Perhaps if they had gone with her choice, I may have been a little more generous with my rating, and upped it a notch. But alas, that is not to be. Pfeiffer is upset, and frankly, so am I. It's the kind of ending that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but you aren't sure why. It seems like a smart move, and it's reasonably logical within the confines of the plot. But it doesn't work. I'm sure anyone could have thought up a more appropriate ending. Interestingly enough, this is one film that could have benefitted from the cliche courtroom scene where the fate of the characters is decided by law.

Aside from the ending, The Deep End of the Ocean strides a thin line between sentiment and true heartfelt drama. For the first half, it walks it extremely well, balancing itself out with assuredness. In the second half, the film begins to stumble into the sentiment phase, trying with all its might to get the audience to cry. It's not blatant in its sappiness, thankfully, but it is still a disappointment. Much of this blame can be put directly on the source: the screenplay.

For this type of drama from entering the so-called Lifetime hall-of-fame (or shame, whichever you choose), the screenplay must be top-notch. In fact, if there are any faults in the script, the film will suffer. I call this the Lifetime syndrome for one specific reason: this movie contains the basic plot of every film you will ever see on that cable channel. Sure, that's over-generalizing. Sue me.

The Deep End of the Ocean begins in 1988 with a virtually picture-perfect family living the picture-perfect dream. Beth Cappadora (Pfeiffer) is a photographer for big-time magazines, which tends to take her away from her husband Pat (Treat Williams). But they love each other very much. It's the kind of family that you want to slap and run over with a car just to bring some turmoil into their life. Ah, but I digress. Beth's fifteen-year high school reunion is approaching, and she feels it's a good way to get some photos taken for a magazine. She takes her three children along, and the plot is shoved into motion. While checking into the hotel, Ben (Michael McElroy) goes missing. At first, Beth is calm, cool, and collected. As the hours tick by, she no longer is able to control herself. It's a startlingly honest scene--Beth's gradual descent into a raving lunatic is believable from start to finish.

Nine years pass, and their lives continue. They move to Chicago to get Pat's new Italian restaurant started, while Beth continues on an even more successful career as a photographer. One day, Sam (Ryan Merriman) shows up at their door, asking if he can mow their lawn. Beth stops dead in her tracks when she sees Sam--he looks exactly like Ben, only nine years older. After extensive police searching, they discover that the fingerprints match.

From this point on, the film raises the expectations of the audiences. Apparently, we will witness the struggles of the family trying to accept Sam into their lives again. Unfortunately, these struggles are ridiculously underplayed, and there is no dramatic tension whatsoever. Occasionally, the film does match our expectations, but only when Sam's adoptive father George Karras (John Kapelos) enters into the equation. How would it be to have the son you've accepted as your own for the past nine years torn away from you by legal issues? It's a fascinating question, but screenwriter Stephen Schiff never explores them thoroughly. Even more interesting would be a courtroom trial in which the law would intervene. How would the law deal with this situation? That question, however, isn't even present in the film.

The screenplay is the main source of trouble here, as it sets standards for itself, and never really meets them. Schiff, who successfully adapted Lolita to the screen in 1997, provides some of the worst dialogue to be heard this year. One particular moment had many audience members laughing, while I was in my seat, gagging. It's pure melodrama at its worst. What's even more unfortunate is Schiff's characters (although this could be blamed on the original author, Jacquelyn Mitchard). The only real interesting characters are Beth and her son Vincent, who blames himself for losing Ben. As for Ben/Sam, I can only say that he needed a major overhaul. He's the perfect child, basically: sweet, loving, caring, theraputic. Not one thing bad about him, that we can see. It's so artificial that identifying with Sam is a chore.

Michelle Pfeiffer, without a doubt, is stunning. She makes the film better than what it probably should have been. Pfeiffer, who has always been a talented actress, makes Beth so easy to identify with, especially in the earlier scenes as she breaks down emotionally. It's a shame that she had to be paired up with Treat Williams, an untalented actor who somehow gets good roles like these, and then proceeds to destroy them. Williams is the worst here. Thankfully, the filmmakers provided us with Jonathan Jackson, who literally steals every scene he is in. Many know him from his award-winning role on General Hospital (I've never seen the show myself), but this film could make him a star. He could be on his way to becoming one of the best actors of his generation. Whoopi Goldberg is placed in the film for comedic purposes, and that's about it. She comes and goes whenever she feels like it. Ryan Merriman is good as Sam, but his character is so bland that he can't make him very interesting. John Kapelos is fascinating as Sam's adoptive father, but he's given very little screen time.

The Deep End of the Ocean is rated PG-13 for language and thematic elements. Director Ulu Grosbard does his best with the material, but this is just one case where the screenplay is the one element that should have been strong and wasn't. The acting is above-par, led by Pfeiffer who continues to impress with her versatility. If you are searching for a good date film, this is probably a good choice. It's sentimental, sappy, but not too melodramatic. If you are searching for a good character study, this is definitely not what you want.

**1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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