Dir: Rose Troche. US. 2001. 120 mins.

The multi-story ensemble piece has become fashionable of late, to dazzling effect in the case of Amores Perros or Happiness and with more muddled results in Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her and What's Cooking' Rose Troche's third film The Safety Of Objects is another of these multi-charactered affairs which falls somewhere in between the two camps. Initially veering unsteadily between the inspired and the sappy, it ultimately transcends soap operatics to strike a dramatically authentic - and cinematic - tone.

Acted by a large, excellent cast headed by Glenn Close and directed with ferocious confidence by Troche (back on form after Bedrooms And Hallways), it's an eminently marketable picture which will find warm acceptance from adult female audiences and enjoy a long life on TV. Unfortunately, it does bear structural and plot similarities to both Amores Perros (a central car crash affects many of the characters) and Happiness (a child is kidnapped, although not sexually abused) and many, critics included, will find it soft in comparison. And compare they will.

Introducing its four central families through a beguiling set of clay models over the credit sequence, the film launches in with family #1 - the Golds. Paul Gold (Jackson) lies in a coma a year or so after a car accident; his resentful and neglected sister Julie (Campbell) listens from the next room as their devoted mother (Close) tends to his every need, while their father (Klein) maintains an awkward distance.

In the house next door, single mom Annette Jennings (Clarkson) struggles to raise her two kids - tomboy Sam (Kristen Stewart) and mentally challenged Rayanne - while navigating a divorce and lamenting the state of Paul who was her lover before his accident. A few doors down lives Jim Train (Mulroney) and his wife Susan (Kelly). They have problems of their own: Jim has lost his marbles after being passed over for a partnership at his law firm, while his 12 year-old son Alex (Alex House) is having an imaginary love affair with his little sister's Barbie doll (voiced by Troche's Go Fish star Guinevere Turner).

Last but not least, there's Helen Christianson (Place), a bored housewife and health freak trying to galvanise her life, possibly by seducing the friendly local handyman (Olyphant). The film sets up the four families and then binds them all together through a complicated structure of flashbacks and circumstances.

Standouts in the cast are Mary Kay Place, who has some of the film's best lines, and the always impressive Patricia Clarkson who manages to create a fully realised character despite limited screen-time in which to do so.

Prod cos: InFilm & Killer Films, in association with Clear Blue Sky Productions and Renaissance Films.
Int'l sales: Renaissance Films
Exec prods: Stephen Evans, Angus Finney, Jody Patton, Pamela Koffler.
Prods: Dorothy Berwin, Christine Vachon.
Scr: Rose Troche, based on the book of stories by AM Homes.
DoP: Enrique Chediak.
Prod des: Andrea Stanley.
Ed: Geraldine Peroni.
Mus: Emboznik.
Main cast: Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Jessica Campbell, Patricia Clarkson, Joshua Jackson, Moira Kelly, Robert Klein, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Kay Place.