Pfeiffer Radiates, Even in Deep Grief … Junior Einsteins Invent an Escape

Pfeiffer Radiates, Even in Deep Grief

When Michelle Pfeiffer shows anguish, it is palpable. A beautiful

actress with warmth, grace and an ever increasing range that continually

amazes me, she is one of the motion picture industry’s unrewarded,

underrated treasures. In The Deep End of the Ocean , a meticulous and

heartfelt film of uncommon emotional forcefulness, she surpasses even

herself. As a mother facing every parent’s worst nightmare–the

loss of a child–she touches nerves I forgot I had and, without turning

the focus of the film on herself, transforms what some cynics might label

Movie of the Week material into a shared experience of compelling

magnitude.

Sensitively adapted from the best-selling book by Jacquelyn Mitchard

that touched the emotions of millions, the screenplay by former film critic

Stephen Schiff (who brings honor to us all) carefully catalogues the

harrowing events that alter the lives of a family of Midwesterners

struggling to survive one of life’s cruelest blows. Ms. Pfeiffer plays

a Wisconsin housewife with three children, a successful career as a

photographer and a loving, devoted husband (marvelously underplayed with

solid strength by Treat Williams). In 1988, she piles her kids into the car

and drives to Chicago to attend her 15th high school reunion. While

she’s checking in at the registration desk, the youngest son

completely vanishes in the middle of the hotel lobby without a trace.

Concern, exasperation and a desperate plea to local cops for help

eventually give way to hysteria, but nothing changes the brutal facts: A

3-year-old child wearing a red baseball cap has disappeared in broad

daylight in the blink of an eye and in a heartbeat, a lifetime of hope and

faith collapses.

In the weeks and months that follow, Ms. Pfeiffer’s character sinks

deeper into lethargy and depression–sleeps all day, forgets her

responsibilities, neglects her husband, abandons her career and, most

importantly, ignores the guilt her older son feels for losing his little

brother who was under his charge on that dismal day. Grief and despair

affect the family members in different ways–all of which is detailed

with minute-to-minute observations in the excellent script and in the

finely tuned performances of a superb cast–but inevitably the

structural unit of the entire family is compromised, traumatized and

eroded. Then the movie shifts gears and another arc builds when, after nine

years, the doorbell rings.

Standing there, a boy the same age as her missing son inquires about

mowing the lawn, and Ms. Pfeiffer as his mom is visibly shaken. The same

hair, the same eyes, the identical facial structure. A mother knows these

things. Could her lost son have been living in the same neighborhood all

these years? More elements. A mystery to be solved. Identities to be

investigated. And finally, it becomes another movie, with a baffled

12-year-old stranger in the house who doesn’t know these people at

all, two disturbed siblings forced to adjust to a new brother, a distraught

and innocent adopted father who loves the kid as his own son, not to

mention a gossip-slobbering press hellbent on turning the story into

front-page news.

As wrenching as their ordeal has been, and as restorative as the healing

process becomes, the family’s happiness at finding their lost son is

challenged by an even stronger test of character. In the end, it is Ms.

Pfeiffer’s selflessness, conviction and love that provides the courage

to do what is best for a tortured and confused child by letting him go. But

there is more, and the final, surprising resolution comes from the children

themselves, proving that kids often have their own set of rules and values

for problem solving that parents overlook. If there’s a dry eye or

bored grimace at the end of The Deep End of the Ocean , I would

advise you to check your pulse. You may be dead without knowing it.

Director Ulu Grosbard has always displayed a talent for bringing out the

best in actors, but the unifying effect of this first-cabin cast’s

ensemble efforts makes this one of his best films. Even Whoopi Goldberg

surmounts her distracting celebrity presence as the loyal detective who

stays on the case after everyone else has abandoned hope, and the two

central performances by Jonathan Jackson, as the cynical older brother, and

Ryan Merriman, as the long-lost boy whose disappearance is life-altering,

are nothing short of miraculous. Michelle Pfeiffer’s transformation

from anger and anguish to resignation and wisdom is breathtaking. And

everything in the narrative flow of the film is logical, honest and

true.

Such are the times that it’s not enough for a movie to be

professional, meaningful and distinguished. To be a hit, it’s got to

be wild, sick, violent, vulgar and insane. The Deep End of the Ocean

may prove to be the exception. It’s penetrating, thoughtful, moving

and suspenseful and it rings with decency and a maturity that is inspired.

Orchids to Ms. Pfeiffer, who also produced it, and to everyone who

contributed to its power and distinction. Subtle, joyous and

life-affirming, it will make you glad to be alive.

Junior Einsteins Invent an Escape

Baby Geniuses is a movie for people who are easily reduced to

a state of demonic stupefaction by the sight, sound, wiggle and drool of

anything in Pampers. I am not one of them, so I find an entire film costing

millions of dollars populated by computer-generated infants mouthing

self-consciously contrived baby talk like “Let’s check out the

world like Jerry Springer and have fun!” about as enchanting as diaper

rash. But if sheer guts, unabashed optimism and a complete disregard for

commercial acceptance are success factors in Hollywood, I have to admire

the zealous enthusiasm of the filmmakers responsible for this curiosity.

They seem to be possessed. Not since the all-bird cast of Bill and

Coo have I seen anything quite so bizarre.

As the film opens, a high-risk lab rat has escaped from a scientific

think tank called Babyco. Helicopters are dispatched. Warnings are shouted:

“Be careful, he’s dangerous!” The escapee turns out to be a

curly-haired, 2-year-old toddler in Dr. Dentons named Sylvester, leader of

an underground gang of über-moppets in a secret laboratory 25 stories

below a theme park called Joyworld run by a diabolical female Frankenstein

named Dr. Elena Kinder (Kathleen Turner). Her infant-care products

conglomerate and tourist annex, operated by a computerized control center

that can produce every special effect from rampaging Teletubbies to burps

that sound like freight trains, is really a cover-up for an underground

research facility designed to tap into the source of infant brain waves for

power and wealth.

“Every baby might know the secrets of the universe,” she

croaks to her noodling assistant (Christopher Lloyd). “This would be

the greatest breakthrough in the history of science!” She may be

insane, but she may also be right. In their glass cages, her baby Einsteins

compose symphonies, construct architectural wonders and communicate in

their language of egghead baby talk. “Goo-goo” is translated as

“She’s Darth Vader in a skirt.” Baby poop is “diaper

gravy” and a laundry hamper full of soiled diapers is

“aromatherapy.” I know this is supposed to be amusing, but

still.

The big problem is Baby Sylvester, whose twin brother Whit has been

adopted by a so-called normal family (Kim Cattrall and Peter MacNicol,

whose sitcom antics often appear more demented than the mad scientists). In

the comic confusion of what passes for a plot, Sylvester (played by

triplets) escapes again to experience Christmas at Macy’s, where he

stocks up on video games and models baby tuxedos, cowboy outfits and

leather jackets. The twins get switched in the mall, and it’s up to

the normal babies to join forces under Sylvester’s command and rescue

Whit and the lab babies from Kathleen Turner’s clutches before she

ships them all off to Liechtenstein. Needless to say, the caca hits the

fan.

The big finale involves a screen filled with crawling, winking,

giggling, gooey-faced babies who take over Joyworld’s computers,

turning robotic dinosaurs, space aliens and 10-foot-tall dolls into their

allies in the war against child psychology. This is accomplished through

the kind of computer-generated animatronics that brought Godzilla

and Mighty Joe Young to life. The process morphs the human eyes and

face, digitally erasing the babies’ eyes and mouths and replacing them

with tongues, teeth, cheeks and moving eyebrows while they engage in

everything from karate to ballroom dancing. While the special effects

impress, the baby talk will make you groan.

When a boy baby in need of a disguise approaches the cradle of a girl

baby, the dialogue goes like this: “Take off your clothes.”

“O.K., Slick, but at least you could take me to dinner first.”

“Don’t forget–I’m listed.” Out of the mouths of

babes, so to speak, that kind of lame Mickey Spillane repartee (written by

the gifted Steven Paul) lacks the comic impact intended.

Meanwhile, brief appearances by the grown-up veterans (Kaye Ballard,

Ruby Dee, Dom DeLuise and especially Ms. Turner) are minimized to the point

of sabotage. Bob Clark, who directed the kid’s movie A Christmas

Story , gets some cute shots of the toddlers, and there’s no doubt

infants are smarter than we suspect. But Baby Geniuses is still a

one-joke idea that tries adult patience faster than a Gerber’s baby

food commercial.

Pfeiffer Radiates, Even in Deep Grief … Junior Einsteins Invent an Escape