THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
Release Date: March 12, 1999
Genre: Family Drama
Runtime: 110 minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Director: Ulu Grosbard
Producer: Kate Guinzberg & Steve Nicolaides
Writer: Stephen Schiff
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In THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, Michelle Pfeiffer portrays Beth Cappadora, a young mother and photographer. As the film opens, Beth is packing her children-seven-year-old Vincent, three-year-old Ben and infant Carrie-into the family van for a trip to Chicago, where she plans to attend her high-school reunion. When she arrives at her hotel, she finds a lobby chaotically packed with former classmates. Amid the pandemonium, she leaves Ben and Vincent with her luggage cart as she fights her way to the front desk. When she returns, Vincent is alone. He let go of Ben's hand, and the toddler disappeared into the crowd. Hours later, Ben is still missing. Police can only conclude that he has been kidnapped.
The film documents the subtle unraveling of a once-happy family in the aftermath of Ben's disappearance. Most of the drama focuses on Beth and the damage her son's loss wreaks on her as a mother and wife, while her husband's retreats into denial and the guilt-ridden Vincent turns to juvenile delinquency. Pfeiffer's performance is the movie's finest attribute; it is a testament to her gifts that she was able to make a sympathetic character out of Beth Cappadora, who is rather less likable in Mitchard's novel. Most of the other actors, especially Treat Williams as her husband, Pat Cappadora and Jonathan Jackson as Vincent, also turn in good performances. Whoopi Goldberg is oddly stiff and dull as Candi Bliss, the detective assigned to Ben's case who becomes Beth's close friend. Her character, so pivotal in the novel, seems superfluous in the film, and her brief, formulaic speech about being black, gay and a woman in a man's world rings a jarring false note in an otherwise realistic movie.
As promotional materials and movie trailers already reveal, Ben miraculously resurfaces nine years later, and the Cappadoras' world again turns upside down. The Cappadoras have to adjust to the dynamics of a fragile family reunited. Toward this end, the movie sometimes grates as Beth and Pat grapple with appalling selfishness to reclaim their newfound son.
Whereas all this melodrama dragged on for hundreds of pages in Mitchard's novel, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN moves along at a well-paced clip. The movie eclipses the novel not only by tightening the plot, but also by extracting events and actions that made Mitchard's characters tiresome and annoying. In the novel, Beth has an extramarital affair and deals with her grief with a protracted self-indulgence. Pfeiffer transforms Beth's self-indulgence into a fragile distance that quietly conveys a mother's constant pre-occupation with her lost child and her fear of loving her other children. The movie concentrates too completely on Beth, however; it would have been far more complex if it had explored Pat's psyche as well. Instead, Pat seems virtually unaffected by his son's disappearance.
Although the ending is a bit pat, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN never becomes so heavy that it depresses. It manages to keep its buoyancy by infusing its characters with a sense of hope. It is an affecting portrait of a loving family, and it even includes a prayer (when Beth frantically prays after she finds Ben) and a visit to church (when the family attends mass together after Ben returns). In its entirety, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN is an affirming look at the love that binds families inexorably together.