Guys and Dolls

Giving it up (again): Michelle Pfeiffer and Ryan Merriman in The Deep End of the Ocean

To paraphrase John Waters: I don't like Steven Spielberg, but I can't deny his efficiency. The director, currently rehearsing another Oscar acceptance speech, knows how to force my body to believe his films, even while my brain resents his troublesome mythologies. (To paraphrase author Sherman Alexie: Saving Private Ryan is two great action sequences bookending a John Wayne movie.) Spielberg's movies remind me of innate female weakness by making me cry and cringe, and they remind me of male heroism by making visceral only the sacrifice and success of men. They pull forth an old emotional reality still holding on, a patient virus in my muscle and blood.

Which is why there's a place for mediocre Hollywood movies--movies whose clumsy attempts to woo the audience just leave us laughing. Like cheap knock-offs of a trendy toy, mediocre movies wear their manipulations and their politics so crassly that you recognize them the next time they appear. You are not moved: You can practice not being moved. You wonder how you were ever emotionally involved in the umpteenth version of a story about, say, a woman who feels guilt and unhappiness because she is not a "good" mother. You ask yourself why you've seen umpteen versions of that story. You wonder what they expect of you.

The Deep End of the Ocean, co-produced by and starring Michelle Pfeiffer, is an amazingly flat-footed film. The book it's based on--columnist Jacquelyn Mitchard's bestseller--doesn't soar much, either, but at least it flutters some. As in the novel, the movie presents every modern mother's nightmare right off the bat: A single moment of inattention and a child disappears. You don't know this particular mother from Adam; you're meant, especially as a woman, to wrap yourself in her flowery skirt and imagine the worst. On the page, mother Bethie's initial transparency gives way to some concrete characterization: She becomes someone to feel something about. But on the screen, Pfeiffer's Bethie remains mulishly undeveloped, to the point where all you see is Michelle Pfeiffer pretending at depression.

Tellingly, when Bethie's lost child reappears nine years later, he has been raised well by a single man, a widower; meanwhile, Bethie's other, neglected son Vincent sasses back, gets drunk, steals cars. (As the adolescent Vincent, Jonathan Jackson is the only actor here not caught acting.) This vague mother has, by attending to her own feelings, failed all her children. She heals everyone by finally denying her own needs--not that the movie describes those needs beyond Bethie wanting her family around her and plenty of sleep. Director Ulu Grosbard wants the (female) viewer to sob for this cypher mother's pain, her selfless sacrifice, the love she'll eventually win from her sons--in short, her redemption. Instead, listening to the clunky dialogue and watching the hollow performances, I thought of all the variations on this story I've witnessed.

This female sacrifice genre makes me wonder: Do such masochistic exercises, of which Stepmom was the most recent, serve as a cathartic release? Do mothers feel such a gap between themselves and their maternal ideal that they must regularly weep out their guilt and repledge their self-effacing devotion? Or are they just encouraged to feel insufficient? (Is this another virus in our bones?) I find it baffling that these are the stories such top actresses as Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Julia Roberts have chosen to produce. Among other things, Pfeiffer's teary project highlights the relatively cool ambivalence of her director's last film, Georgia, which dared to sympathize with the unruly id excised from a working mother's carefully controlled psyche.

As with Stepmom and Sarandon, The Deep End of the Ocean marks the spot when a certain Pfeiffer characterization turns into a parody of itself. At one point, Bethie's husband Pat (Treat Williams) tells her: "You've made a career out of being unhappy." And yes, it is difficult to believe that Pfeiffer ever cracked a smile in Married to the Mob. With the notable exception of her Catwoman in Batman Returns, she has set herself up as a sort of grievous angel: all translucent skin, dark-circled eyes, and lips pulled down at the sides. Has Pfeiffer, for her survival, become the role so many Hollywood movies offer: Oh, miserable beauty, ruled by a tragic female destiny?

You can glimpse these well-used women in the corners (and garbage bins) of James Foley's cop drama The Corruptor: They provide a bruised background for men waving guns. This is a war movie, after all, as modern action movies tend to be. And like most war movies, any woman hanging about exists either as the ostensible reason to fight or as a prop to prove the heterosexuality of the buddies who die in each other's arms.

In his second English-speaking part, Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat plays a New York detective with a Chinatown beat. Mark Wahlberg plays Danny Wallace, the green recruit who discovers that his superior spends more time protecting the Chinatown Mafia than policing it. These two cops are soon caught between an FBI investigation and a mutating Mafia hierarchy. Foley spins out a laudable web of fake/counter-fake--no single character is in the know--along with a constant spray of ultraviolence. Overall, though, there's little in the dialogue, direction, or plot to elevate this film from its standard-issue foundation.

Therefore, it's left to Chow to seduce you into Lt. Chen's life, and seduce he does: The character is swollen with all the sly charm, lanky style, and bemused gentleness that his brittle Replacement Killers character repressed. Chen's practical, then desperate, corruption intrigues enough that I felt the pull of the love story--but not enough to fall, with Wallace, completely. Chow's isolated brilliance becomes a curiosity in itself: Why is he so good at playing men that other men feel comfortable falling in love with? Undoubtedly he's tough, but there's something in his doughy face and full lips that looks soft, too, in the same way that Cary Grant's rounded shoulders seemed endearing. Chow's characters resemble the movies they inhabit: Like hibernating volcanoes, they're cold and sharp, but with a hot, liquid center.

I hesitate to ask why straight men must be under the gun (forgive the pun) to show affection for each other--the answer seems so obvious. But even if you spring free the gay subtext, or simply acknowledge the fear that some American men have of appearing gay, you're left with this incomplete equation: Violence plus love equals...what? Perhaps warfare has been so inscribed on male bodies that men tend to process love's high emotion through images of fear, adrenaline, and combat. And maybe competition is an expression of love as valid as "feminine" cooperation and compromise. In The Deep End of the Ocean, Bethie's two sons develop a gruff affection on the basketball court in between (or through?) their taunts and their shoves. But where's the woman in this scenario? Whether in the foreground of this chick flick or the background of this guy movie, she's lying there sleeping or dead--weak, pallid, and unknown.


The Deep End of the Ocean and The Corruptor are playing at area theaters.

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