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Immediately after The Safety of Objects ended, I was ready to write a short, negative review and forget all about it. It was complex and fatalistic, a combination that worked well for Magnolia, but that did nothing to make this film more interesting. For two hours, all sorts of things happen to 16 different characters, but without any overriding theme or sense of direction.

Surprisingly, many of the characters and scenes lingered in my head for days. For that, the movie earns some bonus points.

Sweet 16

Everyone does something stupid or ignoble
Everyone does something stupid or ignoble

The Safety of Objects tells us upfront that it features 16 characters: four families of three or four, plus a gardener. The characters are all white and well-to-do. They live in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood where hiring a gardener is not out of the question. Some are richer than others, but most are safe in their American dreams.

Patricia Clarkson gives yet another great performance as Annette, the single mother of two daughters, one of whom is mentally ill. She cares for her kids without doting, and she makes time for herself. One of her recent boyfriends was her neighbor Paul.

Paul lives with his mom and sister. In one of the movie’s timelines, he’s the guitarist and singer in a rock band, dating the mature older woman from next door. In the other timeline, Paul is a vegetable, cared for no longer by nurses, but by his mother Esther (Glenn Close), who could probably pass for a nurse after all her work with Paul.

Esther only takes a break from nursing Paul long enough to play in a “Hands on a Hard Body” contest — keep your hands on a car longer than anyone else and you win the car. It’s not entirely clear why she decides to do this, but it’s ostensibly for her daughter, and probably partly to get away from being a nurse 24-7.

Jim (Dermot Mulroney) was a lawyer. Instead of getting a partnership, he got a plaque. He’s disillusioned by the unfairness of it all. He counts all the hours he put in at work and thinks he deserved better. He decides to help his neighbor Esther win the car. It’s a contest he can appreciate, because if you put in the hours, you get the reward. His logic fails to account for everyone else who’s willing to put in the hours for the single, solitary reward.

Trapped in the American Dream

Most of these vignettes (in fact, the movie is based on a collection of short stories) are interesting — not because of the stories, but because of the characters. Many of the characters do something stupid or ignoble, and yet nobody does anything they deeply regret. It’s as though they feel trapped in the American dream. They do something base and against the rules of polite society, but something their natures insist upon.

Annette dates (much) younger men. Jim walks away from his job. Jim’s 14-year old son Jake has conversations with Barbies. Esther finds a twisted way to think of her son’s coma as a blessing. Someone abducts a little girl, not to molest her but because he blew it with his own son. Any of these people would face ostracism from the very society they comprise if their skeletons ever came out of the closet.

At Your Own Risk

With so much going on in the subtext, you’d think The Safety of Objects deserves high praise. The trouble is that there’s nothing going on in the text. There is no overarching plot to tie these stories together. The only hint at a theme comes from the title.

True, each story has some object at its center. Esther has her car. Jim has his plaque. Jake has his dolls. But what sort of a theme is “objects?” You might as well say your theme will be “dialogue” or “people” or “settings.” Maybe the source material makes more sense, but the film is aimless and disjointed.

I’d like to be able to recommend The Safety of Objects more strongly because it is rich and complex, but I can’t deny that at face value, it is boring and aimless.

If you’re up for a dissection of the American Dream, then give it a try, but for pure movie entertainment, look somewhere else.