Bashing the suburbs in film has become as cliché as happy Disney endings, so much of Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects monotonously treads the same familiar paths of The Ice Storm and American Beauty. She just attempts to weave more characters into a single themed work revolving around a critical turning point—similar to 13 Conversations About One Thing structurally. But incorporating too many improbable characters that we don't give a rat's ass about and upping the ante with four parallel storylines, Troche's work comes across even more indulgent than P.T. Anderson's Magnolia. Perhaps Troche's shallow and contrived project is a device in itself—meant to symbolize the structured, empty life of the suburbs. It certainly comes across as a mechanical film school exercise, with its deliberately manipulated coincidences, contrived catharses, and standard crane shot coda marking suburban rat race hell.
It's not that The Safety of Objects is a horrible film. It's just disappointedly tepid, considering its independent non-commercial origin and a stellar ensemble cast that includes Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, Mary Kay Place, and Dermot Mulroney. Based on a collection of short stories by A.M. Homes, dysfunctional families with isolated, lonely characters populate the menagerie. That could describe nearly every film ever constructed in a suburban milieu, so to distinguish her film, Troche inserts comatose Paul God (Joshua Jackson) as a lynch pin to revolve around—how he connects the other characters and came to be in his vegetative state reveals itself as the film proceeds.
Paul's mother Esther (Close) devotes her life to her oldest son, alienating herself from her teenage daughter Julie (Jessica Campbell from Election) and husband Howard (Robert Klein). Watching from a neighboring window is Annette Jennings (Clarkson), undergoing her own form of isolation and grief. She struggles to take care of her two children while her divorced husband neglects to provide adequately for them and prepares for marriage with an irritating woman obsessed about a couple of antiques.
Annette's friend Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) is also lonely despite having an accepting husband. She just wants reaffirmation that she is still attractive and desirable, even to the point of accepting a one night stand on the most ordinary pick up line like, “You have something I want, and I have something you need.” Ignoring spousal and family needs has also become a way of life for Jim Train (Mulroney), who puts all his energies into his law firm, until the day he is overlooked for a promotion. By then he discovers that his wife Susan (Moira Kelly) has learned to cope independently and that his son Jake (Alex House) has retreated into his own fantasy world populated with Barbie dolls.
So, Trouche fashions a suburban universe of four loosely connected families and adds another loner for good measure with fix-it guy Randy (Timothy Olyphant), deliberately left ambiguous in character until the end. Most characters remain interchangeable with similar suburban Anglos you've seen in similar dramas, and the threads involving the Golds and Jennings work the best narratively with the other two families serving mostly as fodder. One notable exception is Jake's unique character that boosts the same theme of isolation and attachment to superficial objects, but also creatively serves as a dose of necessary humor. How many movies show a pre-teen boy getting an erection over a Barbie doll, for instance?
While most of the main actors run through the numbers and hit their marks adequately, only Glenn Close's character resonates with any depth. Her grief and dedication are believable, as is the conceit of the goofy marathon contest she agrees to join on behalf of her daughter. Not only would she win a new SUV for her neglected daughter, but also it gives her a break from the endless routine of caring for her comatose and unresponsive son. Yet she finds the contest still provides no break from thinking about her son, and she begins to think it a mistake that she had prayed for him to live. God sometimes plays cruel jokes on people and takes their wishes far too literally.
Of course, her unresponsive son is only an over-the-top example of life in the suburbs. Finding happiness and quality of life isn't found through objects—a new SUV, a job promotion, a new dishwasher, exercise equipment, or Barbie dolls. An old message generally presented routinely with under-developed characters, Troche would have been better off reducing the numbers of characters to avoid the shallowness that she predictably preaches against in the film. It turns out that her own obsession with film school techniques causes The Safety of Objects to fail overall, as it churns out another mundane commentary on the loneliness of a meaningless existence in the suburban wasteland.