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YOUR AVERAGE UNCLEAR FAMILY

Now that Cap'n Newt is steering the ship of state, how long will it take First Mate Helms to toss Pulp Fiction overboard and throw The Simpsons in the brig? While we wait for a little neo-Puritan backlash, here's a safe, literate and, in places, self-righteous movie about the endurance of family values--just in time to fill the gap between eras.

Little matter that Ellyn Bache's novel Safe Passage was optioned way back in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration. Robert Allan Ackerman's overdue film adaptation, with ex-road warrior Susan Sarandon (see accompanying interview) in the role of a mother of (count 'em!) seven sons, looks like it can push the right buttons in January 1995. For it concludes, in no uncertain terms, that being the mother of seven and the wife of one is one of the highest callings in all womandom.

That's true, of course. But this well-meaning, imperfect saga of motherhood and domestic life also says some things Newt and Jesse probably don't want to hear, or don't want us to hear, even though we already know them. One: Families are messy, unruly organisms that have trouble functioning as they should; sibling rivalries and resentments can screw up the works. Two: Father doesn't always know best; sometimes Dad is sleeping, unshaven, at his office and suffering through unexplained (and highly symbolic) episodes of blindness. Three: Mothers can become obsessed with their own maternal instincts, and when things go wrong, they can lose it and start playing Mussorgsky and Wagner on the stereo at ear-splitting volumes.

Said another way, Safe Passage extols the virtues of family but doesn't mind showing the warts. It's the kind of movie Robert Redford might oversee when in his Ordinary People mode, and it uses a Big Chill-style reunion to pile up points about how people who love one another need to settle their unfinished business. It is by turns an uplifting, intriguing and irritating survey of one American family's tangled dynamics.

The heroic centerpiece is Sarandon's Mag Singer, whose husband, Patrick (Sam Shepard), is estranged and whose nest is now empty except for her seventh son, Simon (Nick Stahl). Weary and bleary from childbearing, dirty dishes and PTA meetings, Mag is not only facing a crisis of aloneness but has undervalued her own contributions. Now she wants a new life as a social worker, not realizing that she's been doing invaluable "social work" for 25 years.

And there matters might remain were it not for--what else?--a family crisis. Mag and Patrick's most "difficult" son, Percival (Matt Keeslar), is a Marine stationed in the Middle East, and the TV news indicates that he may be one of the men killed in a terrorist bombing. The remainder of the Singer boys and the screwy husband reunite one more time in the family's rambling, unkempt house to keep vigil and to rattle the skeletons in their closets.

Ackerman, a well-known theatrical director with an obvious fondness for actors, in his movie debut lets this big ensemble cast generate enough pissing and moaning for a season's worth of soap operas, and a lot of it is pretty shapeless stuff. There's something to be said for dialogue that sounds like "real life" (Deena Goldstone wrote the screenplay), but do we need this much of it?

Son Izzy (Sean Astin) pants after his disturbed father like a puppy, begging for approval; son Alfred (Robert Sean Leonard) looks like Mr. Cool, but his girlfriend reveals otherwise; fourteen-year-old Simon can't find his bearings; the twins, Merle and Darren (Philip Arthur Ross and Steven Robert Ross), search for individual identity; ex-track star Gideon (Jason London) feels guilty because he once alienated the brother who may now be in danger. Dad is no longer allowed in the house except for this special occasion, but he's still back-flipping his tea bag into the sink and setting fires in his estranged wife's heart. Shepard's melodramatic blind spells, however, would have been better left out in the driveway.

Busy, busy, these traumatized Singers. And none spends so much time redefining herself as Mag. Whether the world wants to watch it is another question. Few would dispute that Sarandon has developed into one of the American screen's finest actors, but there's an abrasive whininess in her here that serves neither her character nor herself very well. If she's in the business of creating a heroine who's the same size as life--and that's clearly the movie's goal--why not someone we all can like a little more? Here's a wife and mother who's always held her family together better than she imagined (if you don't believe it, just wait for the flashbacks), but her own disarray does not quite convince. By the time you get to the last reel, you're hoping someone will slip good ol' Mag a couple of Nembutals. Enough already.

The final point, once the Singers face up to the crisis on their hands, is that families, despite all their problems, are strong and good and true--even families with the nerve to tag their kids with names like Percival and Gideon. This is not a message Hollywood sends us very often these days, but that might be because it doesn't need to. With or without Newt and his Newtonian armies, we all understand Mom and Dad and Sis and ourselves pretty well. The dark little secret--don't let it get around--is that we usually go to the movies to meet other people. That's probably why family planning never gets very far at the Bijou.

 
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