When we first see Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer) in the uneven but affecting Deep End of the Ocean, she’s bundling up her three young children for a trip to Chicago for her fifteenth high-school reunion. Her happiness with her brood is palpable – it’s close to exultation. Her husband, Pat (Treat Williams), who runs an Italian restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, basks in the warmth. If Beth represents the maternal ideal, Pat is its masculine counterpart – the provider as patriarch. Though the film starts out in 1988, the Cappadoras seem right out of a spiffy fifties-era sitcom. Their radiance is practically a manifesto. It’s telling us there is no better way to live.
The retro mood is a setup for the shock that soon follows, as Beth’s 3-year-old son Ben, left alone for three minutes with his 7-year-old brother Vincent, vanishes in the bustling lobby of the reunion hotel. It’s as if at this moment the real world – the howling world blocked out by the Cappadoras’ bliss – suddenly breaks through. The setup is reminiscent of those horror films where you just know something bad is going to happen because everything is looking too good. And yet there’s a stark realism in the way Beth is jolted into terror; this, too, is the way life can be.
Nothing else in The Deep End of the Ocean matches the extended sequence in which Beth – disbelieving at first, then stunned, then raving – comes apart. It’s like watching a slow-motion explosion. Ulu Grosbard, directing from a script by Stephen Schiff based on the Jacquelyn Mitchard best-seller, keeps the focus squarely on Beth, as her friends, the police, and, finally, Pat crowd the scene. Her brimming, aghast eyes seem to fill the frame. The reassurances she is given about Ben’s return are weightless. Dread has already taken her beyond all that.
What eventually becomes clear is that Ben – despite community-action volunteers and an intense police search and a cover story in People – is gone, kidnapped. But the movie isn’t about how a family copes with its baffling loss. That’s just the beginning. Nine years later, after the Cappadoras have picked up the pieces and moved to Chicago, Ben re-enters their life, innocently, as a neighborhood kid who offers to cut their lawn. Beth, who had been a professional photographer, stares at the boy, now called Sam (Ryan Merriman), and it’s as if she’s looking at a phantasm. While he mows, she clicks away in secret, and when she develops the pictures, you don’t expect his image to emerge. He’s a mirage. It’s only when his fingerprints check out that this mirage is made flesh.
The Deep End of the Ocean is a very scrupulous piece of work. I’m tempted to call it a superior TV movie-of-the-week, except some of it, notably the performances of Pfeiffer and Jonathan Jackson, who plays the 16-year-old Vincent, resonates in a way unfamiliar to that tamped-down genre. Still, as the film begins to expand on the Big Issues – the meaning of family and all that – it loses its withering power. Sam has been raised by a kind man (John Kapelos) who doesn’t suspect the boy’s history; it is he whom Sam considers his true father even when, somewhat against his will, he moves back with the Cappadoras. Vincent resents Sam’s presence, while to Beth and Pat he’s regarded as the dauphin. Everything in the film plays out with textbookish intent; each scene makes its clinical point. Beth feels guilty for what happened to little Ben; so does Vincent. Pat wants his harmonious homestead back; Beth realizes that’s a pipe dream. Meanwhile, Sam, at worst, just seems bummed out. The filmmakers have idealized even his pain.
The emotional resolutions aren’t pat, exactly. But they’re not messy either, and for material this inherently volatile, that seems like a cheat. We see Beth go from being the most devoted of mothers to becoming a selfless archangel willing to lose her son again for his own well-being. She wants Pat to know that the storybook family he has in his head doesn’t exist. The film would have been strengthened if Beth also realized that her family even before the kidnapping didn’t fully exist, either; that all that lovey-dovey sitcom sweetness was a bit hysterical. Beth is sanctified for our benefit. She’s a role model of how to cope in a crisis.
Pfeiffer’s performance is best in the early scenes, before she’s required to be valiant. Watching her come apart is doubly harrowing because at first she seems so vibrant. Convinced Ben is lost forever, she takes to her bed for days; sorrow makes her a zombie. It’s one of the most harrowing portraits of heavy depression I’ve ever seen in a movie. Pfeiffer may be a delicate, fine-boned beauty, but she’s one of the least fragile actresses on the planet. When she takes you into a character, into a mood, you’re pulled in all the way, whether she’s slithering across a piano top and singing “Makin’ Whoopee,” in The Fabulous Baker Boys, or shimmering with frail virtue as Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons. She can make the loss of innocence tragic; she can make seductiveness seethe. I’ve always wished she would play Chekhov – Uncle Vanya, to be precise. What a Yelena she’d make! (Julianne Moore, who has something of Pfeiffer’s range and resplendence, played her in Louis Malle’s great Vanya on 42nd Street.) Pfeiffer is rare among great beauties in that she doesn’t act as if the spotlight was invented solely for her. In her scenes with other actors, she confers her glow, and the inspiration is often returned.
Pfeiffer must have inspired Jonathan Jackson. Near the end, when Vincent has made himself an outcast, Beth visits him in jail, and the alternating current of hurt and adoration and shared remorse between mother and son makes the screen crackle. Vincent is never more his mother’s child than in this moment. They even begin to look alike. The Deep End of the Ocean stays mostly in the shallows, but in scenes like this, it’s full fathom five.