Family Plots

Growing up with and without Mom.

Six Ways to Sunday
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Stratosphere Entertainment

The Deep End of the Ocean
Directed by Ulu Grosbard
Columbia Pictures

The term “black comedy” has become so elastic in the last few years that it now extends to entertainments as various as Life Is Beautiful, in which Chaplinesque sentimentality is juxtaposed with concentration-camp horror, and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, in which flyspeck louts machine-gun other flyspeck louts with farcical haplessness. Somewhere in the middle comes my ideal black comedy, in which humans are base but their emotions have weight, and the human condition, while irremediable, is leavened by the artist’s cheery sleight of hand. A great black comedy should be palatable but hard to digest, slipping easily down the gullet and then sticking in the gut. The form is currently represented by an unheralded, low-budget jewel called Six Ways to Sunday, directed by Adam Bernstein from a script he wrote with Marc Gerald. Its young protagonist, Harry Odum (Norman Reedus), a fry-cook in the postindustrial wasteland that is Youngstown, Ohio, lives with a shut-in mother, Kate (Deborah Harry), who has contrived to keep him in a state of sexual ignorance. A breathy ex-prostitute now going to seed, she bathes Harry, controls the light in his room, and warns him off relations with “sluts” while hovering inches from his face in low-cut nighties. Harry’s a walking Freudian time bomb.

Invited by his buddy Arnie (Adrien Brody), a Jewish boy with garish rapper affectations, to help collect a debt for a mobster from the proprietor of a sex club, Harry finds himself bombarded by images of topless women and unable to keep from whaling on a man they came only to threaten. “I hope I killed him,” he says, when pulled from the man’s bloody, broken body. And then: “I hope I didn’t kill him.” Seasoned criminals love to exploit such youthful intensity, and Harry is soon adopted by Abie “The Bug” (Peter Appel) and then by his boss, Varga (Jerry Adler), Jewish gangsters in search of a more dependable bully boy than the chaotic Arnie. Bringing Harry along means teaching him how to dress and spend money (“Having money and not flashing it is strictly for gentiles,” they explain); treating him to a whore (Anna Thompson), whom he reluctantly accepts and then pays not to have sex with (“Do I seem normal with girls? Sexually?” he asks); and presenting him with a huge switchblade, which Harry is shortly expected to plunge into the heart of a man he has never met.

SixWays to Sunday is freely based on the 1962 novel Portrait of a Young Man Drowning, by Charles Perry, an African-American playwright and performer who died of cancer before completing a second book. Set in Brooklyn, Perry’s novel (which features white characters) is bleaker than the film, less archly distant, with a nastier ending. Bernstein and Gerald have made it their own. The movie’s slapstick and brutality inhabit the same psychological landscape, and Harry’s acts of violence are viewed in stroboscopic flashes, held long enough to convey their garishness but so fleetingly that you might giggle at your own uncertainty: Did he really do what I think he did? I hesitate to use the word “offbeat,” which has come to describe a metronomical quirkiness that’s as predictable as anything on the beat, but here the surreal touches are sprung without overture, like frogs that just happen to be hopping across the screen. Harry is dogged by a phantom slickster, Madden (Holter Graham), who leers at women and then demonstrates how to molest them. Is it Madden who’s attacking Varga’s Hungarian maid Iris (Elina Lowensohn), or is Madden a stand-in for Harry? Iris is a tiny yet imposing thing (Lowensohn was Dracula’s daughter in Michael Almereyda’s 1994 movie Nadja) with a game leg; it was her “affliction,” says Harry, later, that was the source of his attraction. “That’s why I was attracted to you,” she replies, prompting a look of puzzlement. Here, as elsewhere, Reedus is remarkable, his face both masklike and porous, so that you never consciously register the ways in which Harry is dissolving before your eyes–but you’re not in the least surprised when he does.

Deborah Harry is no actress–her speaking voice is as dead as her singing voice is glassy. But Kate is meant to be zonked and zombielike, a Mummy Dearest, and this bedraggled ghost of a glamorous icon is startlingly potent. Those cheekbones seem to stretch from one side of the screen to other–they hold up Harry’s features, which might otherwise collapse. The director underlines the tension between her past and present by using the Blondie song “Sunday Girl” in a tender encounter between Harry and Iris in a diner. At first I questioned the wisdom of that–it seemed a little cheap. But Bernstein has brought off a coup, making Kate a literal presence in that scene and reinforcing Deborah Harry’s stature. It’s even a coup that Harry’s mom is played by a Harry–the incestuousness extending to their very names.

My first professional movie reviews were written in 1982 at the weekly Boston Phoenix under the tutelage of Stephen Schiff, then a magisterial film critic as well as an exacting editor. Presented with a sentence containing two adjectives in succession (“Jason Tiddlywinks gives a funky, severe performance”), Schiff would say, “Choose one.” “Well, gee, I dunno, the performance is funky but also kinda severe so you kinda need both.” “Choose one,” he would repeat. Squirming, I would direct him to eliminate an adjective and then Schiff, after a respectful beat, would strike the other. Where adjectives are concerned, there’s no substitute for tough love.

Now that Schiff has become a big-deal screenwriter (his Lolita generated scads of ink and his adaptation of True Crime, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, opens next week), it’s as if those last 17 years didn’t happen. I’m sitting here trying to choose one or another adjective for his newest script, The Deep End of the Ocean–an exhausting task because I’m genuinely of two minds about the picture. I want to say it’s subtle, but I also want to say it’s heavy-handed. I want to say it’s incisive, but I have too many problems with its psychological elisions to let it off the hook. Based on a novel–one of those Oprah best sellers–by Jacquelyn Mitchard, it’s the story of a mother, Beth Cappadora (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose 3-year-old son vanishes in a hotel lobby. The first section of the film dramatizes the apparent kidnapping and its agonizing aftermath. Then, after nine years in which Beth and her husband, Pat (Treat Williams), achieve a queasy normalcy with their remaining two children, a 12-year-old boy (Ryan Merriman) shows up at their door offering to cut their lawn for money. Is it? Could it be? (I hope I’m not spoiling anything–all this is in the film’s coming attractions.)

The first part of The Deep End of the Ocean is powerful all right but, given this kind of material, that isn’t much of an achievement. And I’m not sure what Whoopi Goldberg is doing there as a lesbian detective with about as much verisimilitude as Goldberg’s 500-year-old alien bartender on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But in the nebulous middle section, the movie develops layers, and Schiff and director Ulu Grosbard achieve something extraordinary: They dramatize the undramatized–the latent. When an actress such as Patricia Arquette presents a blank face to the camera, it’s really blank, but Pfeiffer’s blankness can make you seasick with its sloshing, stormy underpinnings. Williams gives off glints of suppressed violence and, as the couple’s older son, Jonathan Jackson has a queer affectlessness that signals something roiling underneath. The family’s fake equilibrium creates a tension that’s nearly unbearable, and when the front door swung open and that boy stood there it was all I could do to keep from jumping out of my seat.

But the movie grows increasingly frustrating. The kid, we learn, was taken by a woman crazy with the loss of her own baby and then raised, after her suicide, by a big-hearted guy called George (John Kapelos), who had no knowledge of his adopted son’s true origins. So the Cappadoras’ elation at the return of their son is gradually eroded by the realization that their boy still thinks of George as his real father. But how are we to take the evident inability of Beth and Pat even to address the subject of the boy’s nine years with another couple or their bland expectation that he’ll nestle himself into the family bosom as if he’d never left? Are they supposed to be so shallow, so uncurious, so dim? It’s hard to tell, since so much has been left off-screen–including a climactic discussion between the boy and his stepfather that triggers the film’s absurd ending.

There’s another aspect of Mitchard’s narrative that bugs me, although here my reasons are entirely personal. As someone born to a mother in her first year of medical school and a father in his third, I was–with great regret–placed in the care of grandparents for the first years of my life and later reclaimed before my third birthday. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in psychiatric bills later, I can speak about this with limited objectivity; the point is that, although very young when taken from my primary caregivers–my grandparents–I recall both the joy of my years with them and the hellish trauma of separation more vividly than much of what happened to me last week. I risk boring you with my autobiography to buttress my contention that The Deep End of the Ocean is fundamentally bogus. I don’t buy that Sam, in his fourth year at the time of his snatching, would, less than a decade later, have no recollection of the parents and siblings with whom he’d spent the first three, and that only the aroma of a cedar chest would rekindle faint memories of his warm life among the Cappadoras. I find it absurd that he could ever have settled into life with his new family (especially a certifiably crazy mother) with no scars, growing into a happy, snub-nosed, uncomplicated adolescent instead of, say, the delusional momma’s-boy assassin of Six Ways to Sunday–or, for that matter, a vaguely unstable wannabe movie critic. People differ, of course, and there might be ways to account for Sam’s surprising evolution, but they’re not in the novel and they’re certainly not in the movie.