There’s something uneven about A.M. Homes’s short-story collection The Safety of Objects. The miniaturist glimpses of dysfunction have the appropriate blend of normalcy and devilment (little boy jerks off to Barbie, contestants get violent at mall contest) and the talk has an easy snap, but her account of action is dull, and its dullness leaves such lacunae that it’s hard for the reader to rev back up after descriptive potholes. In adapting Homes’s seamy-underbelly stories for moviegoers who can’t get enough Ice Storming, Go Fish‘s playful Rose Troche no doubt hoped that her direction could give plodding passages a good boot. But though agile edits keep things moving, in braiding several tales into one tight suburban tangle, character development takes more shortcuts than Short Cuts. The merging of characters and intersecting of lives seems forced—Dermot Mulroney is almost schizophrenic as an emotionally remote lawyer on a Time Out-like break from his career who inexplicably becomes a frenzied booster at the mall’s Hands on a Hardbody marathon.
Safety‘s theme is the comfort of ownership, and the bulwarks we build against loss. The movie neighborhood’s nexus is a car accident that puts high school hero Paul (Joshua Jackson) in a coma and kills his bandmate’s little brother. The tragedy touches everyone from his mother (Glenn Close), who sniffles over him round-the-clock, to his now neglected sister, who guilts Mom into the touch-till-you-drop SUV contest, to Paul’s single-mom lover (Patricia Clarkson), to his aggrieved bandmate, who kidnaps Clarkson’s tomboy daughter as a replacement for his dead bro. Unfortunately, important moments are underscored by tired tricks like the ol’ deafening water-drip. And with so much frantic weaving going on, details like a Jesus Lizard poster, and aphorisms like “God has a wicked sense of humor” stand in for entire personalities.
Like Safety, Caroline Link‘s Nowhere in Africa examines the way we cling to the familiar in the midst of chaos. A straightforward epic, almost alarmingly quaint in the telling, this German contender for the foreign film Oscar (Link’s Beyond Silence was nominated in 1997) is an adaptation of Stefanie Zweig’s autobiographical novel detailing her German-Jewish family’s refugee life in Africa during the Nazi encroachment. The Kenyan landscape shows up to play, and strident performances—by Juliane Köhler as the spoiled, young mother who rejects Africa but comes to love it, Merab Ninidze as her husband, who has the opposite experience, and Lea Kurka (later Karoline Eckertz) as their bold, inquisitive daughter—ensure the mood is as purposeful as The Grapes of Wrath. Link’s choice to forgo the novel’s childhood reminiscence in favor of a more sophisticated look at the fraying parental relationship allows for trenchancy, but it’s troubling that the film’s Kenyans, especially cook Owour (Sidede Onyulo, who contends admirably with his goofy lines), seem exoticized, as though still drawn from the memories of a child.
“Remote Control: Caroline Link’s African Odyssey” by Leslie Camhi