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SAFETY OF OBJECTS

LONELY HUNTERS

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Like The Myth of Fingerprints, The Substance of Fire, The Sum of Us and (in some languages) The Storm of Ice -- that is, movies with metaphoric "The X of Y" titles -- Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects revolves around a collection of people at a crucial time in their lives. It's a mini-genre that can be very satisfying when it allows good familiar actors to walk and talk rather than run and shout.

Troche, who made the lesbian dramedy Go Fish, adapted her movie from stories by A.M. Homes, paring down the literature to a concentrated minimum that stops just short of being minimalist. She ponders some weighty existential questions in the fashion and sometimes the style of American Beauty, Robert Altman and a hint of Magnolia. Is just being alive enough? Does life operate by immutable rules? Can we simply let life happen, or must we make it happen? Naturally, her characters reach a point of renewal, although her ending is subtly ominous, with a smiling happy 30ish couple unwittingly poised to experience all the angst that we've just seen her forty- and fifty-somethings go through with their kin.

The Safety of Objects follows four families of neighbors in an upscale suburb near an unnamed big city. In her imaginative opening titles, Troche introduces her cast and characters as carved white figures emerging from carved white homes -- literally, little boxes, occupied by expressionless figurines.

Esther and Howard Gold (Glenn Close, Robert Klein) have a pouty teen-age daughter who resents having to look after her older brother (Joshua Jackson), who lies in a coma in his bedroom, attached to tubes and monitors, after a car crash. Next door is Annette Jennings (Patricia Clarkson), increasingly bitter that her ex-husband doesn't send support checks or visit their kids, one of whom is such a tomboy that you'd never know she's a girl.

Helen Christianson (Mary Kay Place) is a self-actualizing demi-hippie with a sanguine husband who doesn't appreciate her surprise sexual treat. They have kids from teen to grown. And Jim Train (Dermot Mulroney) is a corporate attorney who's afraid to tell his commanding wife (Moira Kelly) that he didn't make partner. So he malingers for a few days as he joins the all-teen cheering section for Esther when she competes to win a car in a hands-on marathon at the mall.

Virtually nothing happens to these characters that hasn't already happened when we meet them. This allows Troche to patiently unravel their psyches and their pasts, and to give each of her stars a lean dramatic climax. Some of these people are losing their minds, and some -- like Randy (Timothy Olyphant), the hunky neighborhood gardener, and Jake, the proto-gay pre-teen who talks to his sister's Barbie doll ("You're the best boyfriend ever," Barbie answers back, seductively) -- already have. It's quiet, moving, and well done if you like this sort of thing, with Glennie as its heart, Clarkson crisp as always, and Olyphant especially touching as a childless father who makes a poignant mistake. * * 1/2

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