Dir:- Rose Troche
Starr:- Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Olyphant, Joshua Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Mary Kay Place
AM Homes is one of the most daring, innovative and skilled contemporary American writers. Her 1990 short story collection The Safety of Objects featured a uniquely surreal, sensuous and serene take on the suburban American experience, that ostensibly dealt with the different degrees of disconnection people need to feel to make their way through a ‘normal’ life. Remarkably it pinpointed ‘ownership’ as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle in many of the character’s lives. Attachment to things, the desire to possess and own, the obsessive need to have, these are the superficial drivers of most of the characters featured within the ten stories. Yet the things that they fixate upon are invariably the things which stunt their inner lives, haunt their waking moments, or prove stubbornly elusive. From a guy called Frank who desperately desires the SUV that is being given away as part of a ridiculous competition in a mall, to a mother of a comatosed son whose desperate need for him to live has blinded her to the toll his miserable existence has taken on her family, these are seemingly ‘normal’ people, who have become reliant on external totems to keep themselves functioning.
The 2001 film based on these stories, isn’t so much an adaptation as a skewered reimagining. Rose Troche, the director of cult lesbian romance Go Fish, takes Robert Altman’s lead and condenses some of the main thematic concerns and characters from Homes’ short stories forming a single, unified narrative arc, of overlapping family concerns. Directly importing some of the characters from Homes’ stories and embellishing on them a little, Troche establishes an insular suburban enclave, a bland island within a bland ocean, occupied by four families (the Golds, the Jenningses, the Trains and the Christianson’s). In an impressive intro sequence Troche presents us with a series of blank white dolls houses, from out of which parade an equally blank and white assortment of dolls. These are representations of each of the families that feature heavily within the story, as well as the gardener and friend of these families, Randy. Three out of the four families are directly connected by an event that has taken place in the past, with tragic consequences for the future. Only the Trains, new arrivals to the neighbourhood, are unaware of what ties the other families together.
Fans of Homes’ stories will recognise elements of plot from each of them, but Troche has done her very best to integrate them so that they adhere to a steady narrative arc, even when, as in the case of the car contest, they appear at their most episodic. Unlike with Altman’s Short Cuts, which had the whole of Los Angeles to play out its interconnected narrative elisions and expansions, The Safety of Objects has far less space to shoehorn all of its disparate stories into. As a result large parts of the film feel overly abstracted, or incredibly forced, mining either Homes’ surrealistic narrative fantasy, or her impressive eye for details that cut to the existential core of a character, but never both of them harmoniously together.
In a bravura twenty-minute opening section Troche cuts between the various different units of the families at a truly dizzying pace, which has the effect of highlighting strongly poetic juxtapositions, such as the exhaling of an orgasm with the inhaling of cigarette smoke, or the reluctant exercise undertaken by one young boy and the inability to move experienced by a comatosed teenager. So much character information rushes past the camera in these opening moments, that it can seem to swamp the viewer down in a chaotic and incomprehensible normality, which is almost certainly what Troche intends. A side effect of this beautifully constructed cinematographic flurry is that the viewer begins to feel their way into the story far more intuitively as the relationships between people become clearer and more apparent. The one family that is awkward in this regard is Dermot Mulroney’s Train family, particularly as Jim’s (Mulroney) wife Susan (Moira Kelly) seems to be a little underdeveloped, as does their daughter Emily (Carly Chalom). By comparison, Jim and Jake (Alex House) are three-dimensional, if highly unusual human specimens. Yet Jake’s piggy-backing on the doll story, although interestingly rendered by the use of an imaginary voiceover and some close puppet work, is nowhere near as satisfying as the genuinely unsettling events of ‘A Real Doll’ – which seem to take their cue from a Roxy Music song. Whilst Jim’s full-blown crisis of confidence manifests itself in the utterly inscrutable coaching of Glenn Close’s Esther Gold, as she tries to win the SUV competition (once again seeking solace in the potential ownership of objects).
These problems of characterisation extend to issues of dialogue, where much of the elegance and élan of Homes’ tightly constructed prose is lost in Troche’s haste to sermonise and explicate her ideas about consumerism and what it means to suburban America. At other points the plot fails to cohere, so that certain characters seemed to be merely gesturing at ideas and motifs (such as Howard Gold’s inability to spend time in the presence of his son, or Bobby Christianson’s bizarre role in the shooting of Jim at the mall). Things often appear messy in the movie, not because the character’s lives are particularly messy, but because the extraneous elements of plot and character haven’t been suitably assimilated and processed. An example of this involves the Gold’s daughter Julie (well-played by Jessica Campbell in an awkward role), who is clearly seen imagining being embraced by her comatosed brother, whilst masturbating on a sun lounger. This is a profound and powerful sequence and yet Julie’s complex relationship with her mother and brother, as illustrated in the fight over possession of the beloved guitar, is never allowed to fully blossom, as perhaps it should.
Although impressively filmed and featuring an excellent cast The Safety of Objects is yet another entry into the increasingly unsatisfying sub-genre of American drama that fixates upon the hidden eccentricities of suburbia, usually as a means to a narrative end. This genre has roots in movies like Mike Nicholl’s The Graduate and Frank Perry’s Burt Lancaster-vehicle The Swimmer. Perhaps the most effective recent entry was Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s superb novel (many of these films have literary sources) The Ice Storm. Whereas that movie managed to play out the incestuous relations between a tight-knit, but cold, group of middle-class American families with a degree of authenticity and poignancy, The Safety of Objects feels much more like the failed attempts at mundane lyricism evidenced in last years 3 Backyards, or the Oscar-friendly Little Children. As a result performances as subtle and restrained as Glenn Close’s get lost in the aimless confusion of the film’s middle section.
A final brief mention must be made for one of the more eccentric choices that Troche makes. In one of Homes’ stories called ‘Looking for Johnny’, a character kidnaps a young 9 year-old boy to stand in for his lost kid brother. This plot is squeezed into the role of Randy (played by Timothy Olyphant) and the kidnapping becomes that of Sam Jennings (a debut performance from a tomboyish Kristen Stewart). Despite the film’s many failures to meaningfully explore some of the dark and sensuous sexuality of Homes’ prose, it manages to do something particularly odd with this plot strand, which as a result of the ambiguous sexual identity of Sam, creates a weird dynamic that doesn’t really exist in the original story, but comes closest to approximating the feel of Homes’ writing. Unfortunately, as with the film as a whole, this interlude quickly comes up against problems of plausibility and, more importantly, a sense of fidelity to what has been revealed of these characters, thus far. Overly ambitious, attempting to both capture the vitality of a very good work of fiction and add layers of emotional depth and insight, Troche’s film sporadically achieves its lofty aims, only for them to somehow break free and prove as elusive as the peace of mind these entrapped characters seek.