There are so many family crises in "Safe Passage" that it seizes up right in front of our eyes. Did even Eugene O'Neill cram as much mother-father-son misery into one evening?
It's about Mag Singer (Susan Sarandon), her seven sons and her estranged husband, Patrick (Sam Shepard). The subplots and cross-plots total about 14--any of them would be enough to fill out a movie. And yet, all together, they form a big glob of undifferentiated upset. The film wears you out without bringing you deep down into the Singers' predicament.
The crux of the film is that one of the Singer boys, Percival (Matt Kessler), is a Marine stationed in a barracks in the Sinai that has been bombed by terrorists. It's not clear whether he has survived. As the family assembles in Mag's house to await the news--all but her youngest, Simon (Nick Stahl), have moved out--they rehash their connection to Percival and to each other.
It doesn't take long to sort out the players since everybody seems to be tagged with just one distinct personality trait apiece. Izzy (Sean Astin) is the brainy scientist who figures why his father keeps going periodically blind; Alfred (Robert Sean Leonard) is the control freak who is paired with an "older" woman (Marcia Gay Harden); Simon puts Jell-O in his hair so he can have dreadlocks; Gideon (Jason London) is the star athlete who feels guilty that he outran Percival in high school; the college-age twins Merle and Darren (Philip and Steve Ross) are, well, twins. Their dad is an inventor--a tinkerer, really.
Percival we see entirely in flashbacks--both the childhood and the adult variety. We also see him in the home movies and videos from Sinai that punctuate the family wailing and cheering. This business of watching home movies of a loved one has become such a movie cliche that you'd think the screenwriter, Deena Goldstone, and the director, Robert Allan Ackerman, would cook up something else. But "Safe Passage" is unafraid of the unadorned cliche. It tries to raise cliche to the level of art by sheer voluminous effort.
With the exception of Sarandon, and possibly Shepard and Astin, none of the performers have much authenticity. Sarandon is excellent--she takes her wiggy Mother Courage role about as far as it can go. Her Mag has a well-worn look; you can believe that this women spent all those years mothering and mediating her brood. And she has a look in her eye for her husband that's a woozy combination of lust and stupefaction. Sarandon makes the movie worth seeing--barely.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for scenes of marijuana use and limited vulgar language. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of a woman fighting a rabid dog.
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Susan Sarandon: Mag Singer Sam Shepard: Patrick Robert Sean: Leonard Alfred Sean Astin: Izzy A New Line Cinema release of a Pacific Western production. Director Robert Allan Ackerman. Producer Gale Anne Hurd. Executive producers David Gale, Betsy Beers, Ruth Vitale. Screenplay by Deena Goldstone. Cinematographer Ralf Bode. Editor Rick Shaine. Costumes Renee Ehrlich. Music Mark Isham. Production design Dan Bishop. Set decorator Dianna Freas. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.