By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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There’s a scene early in The Deep End of the Ocean that’s more terrifying than any in a horror movie: A young mother kisses her husband goodbye and packs her three small children into the car for a road trip to her 15th high school reunion at a big-city hotel. In the bustling lobby, dazed by the demands of kids, luggage, and the embraces of people she doesn’t readily recognize, the woman hands her infant daughter off to a friend, tells her 7-year-old son to keep an eye on her 3-year-old son, and turns her back for a minute to register. When she swings round again, the younger boy has vanished — silently, utterly, without a trace.

The situation is a primal fear not just for parents but for anyone who has stared at the blurry faces of so very many missing kids on milk cartons. And director Ulu Grosbard (Georgia) — working closely with Michelle Pfeiffer as the distraught mother, Beth Cappadora — powerfully communicates not only the sickening randomness of the disappearance of towheaded Ben but also the immeasurable human imperfections that come to haunt and often destroy a family under such stress. Beth’s endearing distractibility, for instance, born of her simultaneous pursuit of a photography career, becomes a focus of anger for her husband (Treat Williams), who needs someone to blame as hours turn into days, weeks, months, and finally years of dead-end leads. And Beth’s own emotional delicacy short-circuits into acute, sleep-all-day depression that takes its biggest toll on her troubled older son, Vincent (Cory Buck as a child, vividly talented General Hospital star Jonathan Jackson as a teenager).

The movie, adapted from Jacquelyn Mitchard’s bestselling, hot-button 1996 novel into a careful if sometimes stiff screenplay by Stephen Schiff, spirals down into the depths of loss, then corkscrews back up in a complicated plot twist. Ben reappears in the neighborhood nine years later, having been adopted by a loving man (John Kapelos) — miraculous, sure, but posing a new challenge, since the boy has no memory of the family who want him back, and no desire to live with strangers. Which bonds between parent and child are in the blood, the movie asks, and which are in the rearing? How does each member of a family shift to adjust to the crisis? How much maternal agony can Pfeiffer convey in the tender veins that throb on both edges of her lovely forehead?

Quite a lot, it turns out, particularly in the first act. Pfeiffer’s signature dramatic traits — arousing aloofness, dreamy intensity — make Beth a compelling figure of grief; the ”bad” mother’s progression from shock to misery to depression to glazed-over coping is as powerful on screen as it is on the page, and Pfeiffer is helped by some finely modulated supporting performances. (One who doesn’t fare so well, through no fault of her own, is Whoopi Goldberg, playing her umpteenth variation on a gruff but compassionate professional. Here, she’s a detective and by-the-way lesbian, given no life outside of the job and no particular reason to be a lesbian except to make a strained speech about how as a black, gay, female cop, she’s got to be tough to be tender.)

It’s in the second act, though, that Grosbard and Pfeiffer falter, as the plot bulges in outlandish literary ways no movie, perhaps, could ever satisfactorily accommodate (even less so a movie that insists on such a slapdash, upbeat ending). Interesting opportunities for Grosbard to explore the more jagged edges of the fractured Cappadora family are regularly passed up in favor of prettified imitations of group interaction — a party celebrating the boy’s return, a therapeutic game of basketball between Ben and Vincent. And as the family’s generic suburban home is regularly bathed in soft light, Pfeiffer’s sweetheart face glows no matter how raw Beth feels.

Grosbard ends up installing a protective Plexiglas bubble over the wrenching emotions of Mitchard’s domestic nightmare, shutting out all harsh sound and discord. We can see Beth’s misery, but ultimately we can’t feel her pain. We’ve lost track of it, in the shallow end of Hollywood drama. B-

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