Exploiting a mother's natural fear of losing a child is a pretty cynical way to generate a couple of hours of cheap drama. But "The Deep End of the Ocean" thrashes about so haplessly in its desire to plumb every last depth of two-hankie tragedy that you almost feel sorry for it when it goes under for the last time.
The film adaptation of Jacquelyn Mitchard's literary weeper gives us Michelle Pfeiffer as Beth Cappadora, a mother of three who elects to take her offspring along on a trip to her 15-year high-school reunion. The error of that decision is made shockingly apparent when her 3-year-old, Ben (Michael Mcelroy), vanishes from sight, sending Beth and husband Pat (Treat Williams) on a 10-year odyssey of pain, loss and recrimination.
Just as suddenly, the child reappears in the form of new neighbor Sam (Ryan Merriman), now nearing puberty and totally unaware of his past life as part of the then-happy Cappadora family. Helping the clan on its difficult path to reintegration is detective supervisor Candy Bliss (Whoopi Goldberg), a concerned cop who wins Beth's confidence by admitting that she's not only black and a woman, but a lesbian as well. It's a wonder she hasn't been given a limp, just so the otherwise very white story can hit every multicultural point in one fell swoop.
Maintaining sympathy for Beth's broken-heartedness is nearly impossible, as she's every bit the negligent ninny she's afraid of being tagged. From the first scene, she's seen fobbing off her infant daughter on a succession of baby sitters and nannies. She leaves her other two youngsters all alone in a hotel lobby, and when the tinier of the pair goes missing, she again strands the remaining tyke while she conducts a solo search. With maternal instincts that dull, she shouldn't worry that her toddler has fallen prey to kidnappers; it's much more likely that he's been rescued by a particularly vigilant agent of HRS.
For a real-life mom who spends so much of her talk-show airtime extolling the virtues of parenthood, Pfeiffer is markedly unconvincing as a mourning modern-day Electra. Her distraught act is so underplayed as to be almost imperceptible, except for an abrupt, incongruous scene in which she goes so hysterically bonkers that she has to be sedated. Then again, what's a meaty leading-lady role without at least one Frances Farmer moment?
Williams has even less to work with, stuck in the stereotypical part of the strong husband who's a rock of reliability when one is needed, but an unfeeling control freak when it's not. He's even forced to utter the fervent plea, "I just want us to be a family again" -- a line the Lifetime network should long ago have retired due to conspicuous overuse.
The biggest offender is Stephen Schiff's clunky screenplay adaptation, which allows no breathing room as it zips from one heart-tugging episode to the next. The decade-long gap in the action finds no one save the children looking considerably older; Goldberg even appears to be wearing the same suit. Denied a second of genuine contemplation amidst the plot's furious onrush, Beth and Pat seem to be coping with their loss a lot more effectively than we're supposed to believe. This "Ocean" would flow more smoothly if the actors swimming against its tide were ever allowed to come up for air.
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