FILMS

Delicate liaisons

A movie skirts the new issues of adoption

Brian D. Johnson October 30 1989
FILMS

Delicate liaisons

A movie skirts the new issues of adoption

Brian D. Johnson October 30 1989

Delicate liaisons

A movie skirts the new issues of adoption

IMMEDIATE FAMILY

Directed by Jonathan Kaplan

They are a professional couple who seem to have everything: an enduring marriage, a beautiful house overlooking the ocean, a black Saab Turbo convertible and a cute dog. What they lack, however, is a baby. And after failing to conceive their own, they arrange to adopt. They pin their hopes on a young, working-class woman who is about to give birth but who lacks the means to be a good mother. That is the premise for Immediate Family, a movie about the trend toward open adoption—a process by which the biological mother meets the adopting parents before surrendering her child. It is a delicate issue, the kind more typically addressed by a television movie-of-the-week. But Immediate Family tiptoes around the controversy. Amusing and heartwarming, it gently touches on familiar chords with dexterity.

More soothing than provocative, Immediate Family offers a timid script enlivened by some fine acting. But the casting is at first perplexing: why are Glenn Close and James Woods— both famous for playing twisted personalities—portraying a nice, well-adjusted couple in a nice, well-adjusted movie? In her most recent role, Close appeared as a cruelly vindictive aristocrat in the 18th-century sexual intrigue Dangerous Liaisons. And the last time she shared the screen with young children was in the 1987 thriller about the dangers of infidelity, Fatal Attraction, where her character turned a little girl’s pet rabbit into a bubbling pot of goulash. Woods tends to play hotheads, schizophrenics and drug users. Last year, he appeared as an addict in The Boost, a cautionary tale about cocaine, and as a pot-smoking lawyer in True Believer, the story of a courtroom renegade. Now, Immediate Family gives Close and Woods a rare opportunity to act like model citizens. Both performers seem to coast through the movie. But even at half-speed, the two actors manage to transcend their material.

Filmed in Vancouver, the story is set in Seattle. Linda (Close) sells upscale real estate; Michael (Woods) is a veterinarian. After a decade of marriage, Linda has failed to become pregnant. The couple makes a glum attempt at artificial insemination, without success. Finally, they turn to an agency that arranges open adoptions, an organization that seems to operate much like a dating service. It involves an exchange of vital statistics, a nervous first meeting, a negotiation and perhaps a lifechanging commitment. The movie conveys the awkward novelty of the procedure for everyone involved. As a friend of Michael’s mother

observes: “It used to be about a child needing a home. Now it’s about a couple needing a child.” Suddenly, Linda receives a collect call from a young woman at an outdoor pay phone who is due to give birth in three weeks. Lucy (Mary Stuart Masterson) is from out of town. She lives in a crowded house with a grizzled stepfather and an indolent pair of brothers. Raising a baby is out of the question. Soon Lucy is on

Linda’s doorstep, followed by her boyfriend, Sam (Kevin Dillon), a rock ’n’ roll musician.

As the couple gets to know both Lucy and Sam, they suffer culture shock. When asked what business his parents are in, Sam replies, “They’re not in a business, they’re in a job.” In fact, Sam’s mother works in a bakery and his father was convicted of killing a fellow factory worker in an argument. Says Sam:

“You don’t mess with the old man.” However, Linda and Michael eventually recognize that the biological parents of their prospective acquisition are a loving couple, despite punk appearances and indigent backgrounds. The class barrier is reduced to a matter of taste, like the difference between easy-listening music and heavy metal—Linda and Lucy find common ground dancing in Linda’s living room to an old Van Morrison ballad. In seeking a home for her unborn child, Lucy experiences the family warmth that she never had. And the relationship comes together in an especially moving scene of Lucy giving birth, with Michael and Linda serving as labor coaches.

Inevitably, Lucy has second thoughts about giving up her child—otherwise, there would be no drama. Masterson captures the subtleties of the young mother’s dilemma with great sensitivity. But the script does not develop the conflict. All the characters seem unnaturally patient with one another. And director Jonathan Kaplan pads the narrative with an excess of soft-rock montage sequences, which sap the dramatic tension.

Meanwhile, Immediate Family evades some disturbing issues about adoption. Although it is the story of an affluent couple who, in effect, buy a baby from a woman who cannot afford to keep it, the movie does not grapple with the implications of the transaction. Nor does it comment on the fact that the couple selects the hottest commodity in the adoption market: a healthy, white, newborn baby. At first, the story juggles clichés with a sense of irony. But as the drama turns serious, clichés solidify into moral stereotypes.

Director Kaplan has built much of his career on movies that express a feminist com passion for women. His best movie, Heart like a Wheel (1983), chronicled the reallife story of American drag racer Shirley Muldowney, who fights a battle against sexism to become a champi on. And last year, Kaplan di rected The Accused, the har rowing story of a female lawyer defending a working-

class victim of a gang rape.

With Immediate Family, he makes a much less challenging movie about women learning to communicate across the class barrier. The movie succeeds in generating a strong sense of empathy, but, for the sake of unthreatening entertainment, it skirts the issue that it pre tends to explore.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON