The Deep End of the Ocean (1999)
Directed by Ulu Grosbard
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Ryan Merriman, Jonathan Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, John Kapelos, Cory Buck, Michael McElroy, Alexa Vega, Lucinda Jenney.
1999 108 minutes
Rated: (for profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 13, 1999.
Based on the Jacqelyn Mitchard novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean" has allegedly experienced a rocky road to the big screen, and it shows. Reshoots ensued several months after already wrapping, and although the press kit read that the film was 148 minutes, it actually was forty minutes shorter. Was that a mistake on the kit, when it should have said 1:48, or was it really cut by nearly 3/4 of an hour? My guess would be the latter, since large chunks of the film seemed to be missing, and despite the exemplary performances from the whole cast, the editing is admittedly pretty shoddy.
The film begins in 1988 in Madison, Wisconsin, as joyful photographer and mother, Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer), leaves her husband, Pat (Treat Williams), to go to her high school reunion, bringing along her three children, 7-year-old Vincent (Cory Buck), 3-year-old Ben (Michael McElroy), and infant daughter, Kerry. While in the hotel lobby where the reunion is being held, Beth walks away from a brief moments to check in, telling Vincent to hold Ben's hand, but when she returns, Ben is nowhere to be found. Immediately thereafter, a highly-publicized search starts for Ben, headed by investigator Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg), but to no avail, and Beth, cloaked in a smothering vail of grief and remorse, starts to nearly ignore her other kids, notably Vincent, leaving it up to Pat to take on the central parent role. Switching forward nine years, the Cappadora family has relocated in the suburbs of Chicago and Beth has finally been able to get her life back together. And then the unthinkable happens: one summer day, Beth is greeted at the door by 12-year-old Sam (Ryan Merriman), who lives two blocks away and asks to mow her lawn for her. Put into a near frenzy of sudden joy and hope, Beth becomes convinced that "Sam" is actually Ben, and her belief is reassured when Det. Bliss informs her that the fingerprints match. The less said about the further developments in the storyline, the better, since there are a few surprises.
"The Deep End of the Ocean" is a rather frustrating drama because, on the one hand, it is a realistic and beautifully acted drama with several touching moments that come out of the screenplay, instead of taking the easy route and plucking at the heartstrings with maudlin melodrama. But then, coming away from the film, the flaws gradually began to shine through more clearly, not the least of being that nothing is really dealt with in a satisfactory manner as it seems to be constantly rushing to its conclusion which, by the way, feels tacked-on and unbelievable.
While some characters are given satisfactory screen time and are handled well (Pfeiffer, Jackson, Merriman), others remain underdeveloped and pushed to the side-lines (John Kapelos, as the man whom Ben thought was his father, Williams, and Alexa Vega, as Beth and Pat's youngest child, Kerry). Also, several occurrences in the story are treated by only a shot of something (for the last half of the film, Pat sleeps on the couch, signifying marriage problems), or are brought up and then immediately forgotten (the question of who Ben will celebrate Thanksgiving with).
As already noted, nothing negative could possibly be said about the fine performances. Michelle Pfieffer is always authentic in her wide range of emotions, as a mother who is devastated and blames herself for her son's disappearance. Treat Williams, a generally underused actor (although put to good, chilling use in the 1986 masterpiece, "Smooth Talk"), is satisfying as Pat, Beth's husband, even if he could have had more to do. And as for the children, the standout performance of the whole cast is Ryan Merriman, making his feature film debut, who is truly touching as the boy who finds himself torn between the man he has always thought was his father, and his biological parents. Merriman is never anything short of astounding, and is a new, refreshingly talented find. Jonathan Jackson, as the misunderstood and oft-times ignored 16-year-old Vincent, shows that he has a lot more going for him, after all, than the soap opera he is on, "General Hospital," and if this film is any indication, Jackson should get off that show while he still has a chance at a prosperous film career. Meanwhile, in a minor role, Whoopi Goldberg is effective as the caring Candy Bliss, and has one zinger of a line after announcing her name ("I know, it sounds like a Las Vegas stripper"). In one peculiar scene, however, Det. Bliss tells Beth, for no apparent reason, that she is a lesbian, but what exactly was the point, since nothing is made of this revelation after Candy brings it up?
"The Deep End of the Ocean" is a respectable family drama, but is all the more disappointing since it is obvious that it could have been so much more. There is no doubt in my mind that much of the film's problems is due to what ended up lying on the cutting room floor, and I wonder exactly why Columbia decided to cut it like they did. I was never bored by the film, and if about fifteen to thirty minutes had been added, many of my criticisms would probably have vanished, or at least lessened. The performances in "The Deep End of the Ocean" are so strong and assured that it's too bad the obviously truncated screenplay didn't hold up its half of the bargain.
©1999 by Dustin Putman