'Safe Passage' is an artificial parade of troubles

January 06, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Safe Passage," the boys aren't only back in town, they're all under the same roof! The boys are the Singer brothers, six out of seven of 'em, gathered under the eaves of a big comfy suburban house to find out if Singer No. 7 (Percival, by name) is or is not dead on some little corner of a foreign field.

The wait, as Marines dig through the rubble of a bombed-out barracks looking for bodies in the far-off Sinai, always feels more like a device than an ordeal. It's artificial and stagy. It generally keeps everyone more housebound than 6 feet of snow, where they snip and paw at each other until all wounds have been rubbed raw and all scabs picked clean -- but cutely. Think of the film as a cross between "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "The Family Circus."

Worse, director Robert Allan Ackerman seems to have so little faith in the is-Percival-dead bit that at points he forgets about it. There's a scene where the doorbell rings -- the family knows that if the news about the prodigal is bad, a Marine Casualty Officer will arrive to present it in person -- and nobody even seems to notice. Wouldn't they race to the door in a frenzy of desperation?

Instead, each of the boys seems more intent on awaiting his big scene, and grabbing the limelight from the two hammy parents who are equally reluctant to yield it. The drama is somewhat primitively structured so that each of the damaged Singers, over the long night's journey into day, will have a moment of bald self-expression where he lets his particular demon out of the bag. "Dad," chokes one, gagging on his own bitter tears, "I was the one you yelled at all the time."

It goes on like that, far too long. Each son's personality has been reduced to a single quirk and, frankly, there are so many of them that pretty soon the quirks get pretty thin.

How's this for a quirk: Two of the brothers are twins. They have no personalities and make no contribution to family culture or conversation; they just look alike (and are played by real-life twins, Phillip Arthur and Steven Robert Ross). Robert Sean Leonard registers the best as "the one who married a divorcee." Sean Astin is "the one with the beard who writes everything down." Poor Nick Stahl, he's "the one with Jell-O in his hair."

Though the family has been contrived along excessively eccentric lines, the rupture that seems to separate it is quite commonplace -- the tribal distance between Man and Woman and Mr. and Mrs., played minimally by Sam Shepard and maximally by Susan Sarandon. They are a kind of Everypop and Everymom, whose mythical density keeps getting in the way of their spontaneity.

Like everything else in the movie, the two parents seem rigidly programmed by some psychology professor. Patrick, the dad, is into order, competition and discipline. He's encouraged each boy toward manhood by pushing sports as a universal cure, and the cure took in some cases (one son is a champion quarter-miler) and didn't in others (the Marine quit track and school when his younger brother, the champion, beat him).

Mag, the mom, is disheveled and semi-hysterical, a mess in sweat pants and untucked flannel shirts, but so overflowing with love she seems a volcano of nurturing. Concern bubbles out of her eyes like lava. She doesn't get sports and she certainly doesn't get the Marine Corps, but she gets motherhood. One time she throws herself on a dog that is about to take a bite out of a kid.

Paradoxically, she also wants out. Not only is each child frozen in a moment of crisis, but so too is Mom; after 25 years of marriage, she's just asked Patrick to move out. It's time for her to have a life after raising all those kids ("I was 35," Mag says, in the movie's best line, "before I ate a meal where I didn't have to cut somebody else's meat."). The disheveled house and wardrobe are clumsy symbols of her upheaval.

Sarandon, who is very much the Mother Courage of the film, tries very hard, but Mag is essentially a one-note character.

As for Shepard, he seems miscast. Amiable and somewhat dopey, he's a no-note character. We never really get a fix on him. His only personality trait is a smirky condescension for his wife (no wonder she wants to dump him), but he seems utterly unstirred by the possibility of a son wasted in some futile foreign adventure. He's been given a gimmicky little weakness that comes to mean very little, an occasional stint of blindness that the movie treats like a joke.

By the time the news from the Middle East arrives, it's an anticlimax. You just want to get away from the nattering Singers, and go someplace quiet, like a beltway or a machine shop.

"Safe Passage"

Starring Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard

Directed by Robert Allan Ackerman

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated PG

**

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