Courtesy Photo
**1/2 stars 108 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, March 12, 1999
Directed by Ulu Grosbard

Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Treat Williams, Jonathan Jackson, John Kapelos, Ryan Merriman & Whoppi Goldberg


Although "Deep End" largely overcame its cheap melodrama qualities on the big screen, as a rental it's going to seem all the more like a cheap, made-for-TV movie with A-list stars.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 8/10/99

'Deep End' skirts hard emotions in story of kidnapping, return of young boy

By Rob Blackwelder

I had a problem with "The Deep End of the Ocean" right off the bat because Michelle Pfeiffer loses her kid (that's the plot) at one of those 15th class reunions that take place only in the movies.

In real life, class reunions happen at 10 and 20 years. But in Hollywood 28-year-olds are still hottie material and therefore too young for "Big Chill" moments of reminiscence, while 38-year-olds are over the hill and too old to have any recollection of their teens. So screenwriters invented the 15th class reunion to allow attendees to still be young, pretty and vital at 33, but old enough to look like real parents.

I made an effort to let go of this pet peeve early on and tried to get into the story, which is ostensibly about how a mother and her family copes with the disappearance of, and nine years later the subsequent return of, her youngest son.

Better than the made-for-cable kind of crap it sounds like, it's also a step above such recent ruthless tearjerkers as "Stepmom" and "Patch Adams."

Problem is, this one swings toward the other end of the emotional scale. At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite (I was none too kind to "Stepmom" and "Patch"), the folks in this movie are just too reserved -- like the whole cast is having dinner at the in-laws and nobody wants to rock the boat.

Based on the Jacquelyn Mitchard novel of the same name, "Deep End" traces the evolution of Beth Cappadora's (Pfeiffer) family after her son disappears then jumps to a decade later when Beth spots a local boy who she's sure is her missing offspring.

After a police investigation -- lead by detective Whoppi Goldberg, doing her wisdom-and-wit thing (a la Guynan on "Star Trek") -- it is discovered the 12-year-old (Ryan Merriman) is indeed the missing boy and he is forced to leave his unknowing adoptive father and move back in with his natural parents. All this takes place in just a few minutes of screen time, giving part of the film a very rushed feeling.

Directed by Ulu Grosbard ("Georgia"), the film skirts the more difficult emotions and any breakdowns the characters might have, opting instead to show just the aftermath, like the presumably distraught Pfeiffer giving up her photography career and spending her days with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of Valium.

Pfeiffer does a fine job with the incidentals of depression, and "General Hospital" alum Jonathan Jackson plays perfectly her elder teenage son's disaffected eye-rolling and uneasy resentment of his returned bother. But overall the characters' heartbreak and joy feel terribly clinical. While the characters speak frankly about their feelings, very little comes naturally. For example, inevitable fights between Beth and her husband (Treat Williams) seem to come on cue instead of stemming from circumstances.

There is tension in the reunited family, of course, but everyone is too polite to talk about it. The film has very little moral complexity, as demonstrated by the way the loving step-father is regulated to little more than a walk-on part. It was his disturbed, and now dead, wife who had kidnapped the boy in the first place, but as far as the kid is concerned, this is his father.

"Deep End" is respectful of the audience and doesn't try to jerk us around emotionally, which is a refreshing change, but in the process its characters became unrealistic goodie-goodies.

Somewhere out there is a happy medium between "Stepmom's" cry dammit! approach to audience empathy and Stepford-like automaton storytelling. "The Deep End of the Ocean" comes close, but it's just a bit to Prozac-influenced to feel life-like.


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