Photo by Zade RosenthalMICHELLE PFEIFFER WEARS HER GOOD LOOKS LIKE an affliction — has any other Hollywood star ever been so miserable being so beautiful? In the waterlogged new melodrama The Deep End of the Ocean, Pfeiffer plays a character customized for full-blown agony and perhaps an award. Beth Cappadora, a suburban supermom in pink lipstick and a floral-print skirt, travels to her 15th high school reunion and parks her two young sons in a busy hotel lobby, only to have one of the boys go missing, seemingly for good. Consumed by grief, Beth spends the next nine years crying her eyes out and raging against everyone in reach, though mostly herself, an emotional workout that allows Pfeiffer to knot her porcelain features into an array of Kabuki grimaces. It's the sort of performance that announces itself with all the subtlety of a lit-up highway construction sign. Caution: Actress at Work.

When she's not plying her comic timing as Carole Lombard's brittle sister, Pfeiffer's preferred emotional register is despair. To judge from most of her dramatic roles — a dysfunction survivor in A Thousand Acres, the self-destructive newscaster in Up Close and Personal, the tragic countess in The Age of Innocence — the actress, or perhaps it's her handlers, enjoys watching Michelle Pfeiffer suffer. We do too. There's something about seeing those blue eyes puddle up and those cheekbones go blotchy that turns us on, gives us a sadistic thrill similar to the one we receive when Nicolas Cage gets beaten to a pulp, or Mel Gibson flies through a breakaway car window. But it's no fun if the bruises don't fade and the eyes don't stop watering, and part of what has been irritating about Pfeiffer's more recent work is the way she seems to positively cling to the darker end of the emotional spectrum.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — in The Deep End of the Ocean, Pfeiffer runs up and down the five stages of grief like someone laboring over her piano scales, with an attack that remains uniformly more studied than felt. Beth loses a child, then nearly loses herself and the remainder of her family in the depths of her own mourning. Initially, the character's suffering seems understandable, if narratively premeditated. (She retreats to bed, her night table littered with prescription bottles, leaving her two remaining children and her husband to fend for themselves.) But after a while her grief starts to seem self-indulgent, because there's no place for Beth to go except deeper into her own unhappiness. Neither screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who clumsily adapted Jacquelyn Mitchard's best-selling novel, nor director Ulu Grosbard (Straight Time, Georgia) seems to know how to help Pfeiffer tap into something beyond anguish, which is why instead of playing sympathetically, for most of the movie Beth comes off as an undermedicated drag.

WITH FEW EXCEPTIONS, PFEIFFER HAS BEEN RUNNING away from her strengths — killer looks and a low-wattage, facile charm — since the wonderful, skittish eroticism of Steve Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys. (Kloves also directed Gwyneth Paltrow in Flesh and Bone, one of that actress's few memorable performances.) One of the most familiar Hollywood rites of passage is the one in which beautiful actresses attempt to prove themselves by scrubbing off their makeup and debasing themselves in realism. Some, like Marilyn Monroe, never recover from the effort; others realize their folly and jump into My Best Friend's Wedding. Pfeiffer's most recent satisfying performance was in the perilously slight One Fine Day, a comedy of remarriage that, while featuring a pair of gargoyle children, at least allowed Pfeiffer to flash her legs at an appreciative George Clooney. Curiously, the actress's last great performance was as the schizoid frump turned sex kitten in Batman Returns, a role that neatly illustrated the good girl/bad girl schism that plagues not just Pfeiffer, but most of her peers.

As with most of her peers, Pfeiffer's reward for trying to be more serious, more actor than star, has been a series of roles in which she is humiliated, punished and generally made unhappy. The most hysterical form for this kind of debasement is the maternal melodrama, one of the few sub-genres to offer women the opportunity to play something other than a male appendage. Stella Dallas is the apotheosis of this sort of film, in which female suffering is so acute that reviewers would often grade them on the number of hankies the audience required. The meanings of these films are intensely contradictory — motherhood is inevitably a benediction and a curse — and their pleasures as undeniable as they are excruciating. In Stella Dallas, a trashy dame with a weakness for frills and dreams of social mobility gives up her daughter so that the girl can assume an upper-class, presumably better, life. The implicit point of the movie, as film theorist Mary Ann Doane has observed, is that “Stella does not commit a social error, she is that social error.”

Stella's class aspirations are responsible for her downfall, but they're also what set the stage for her daughter's putative happy ending. The Deep End of the Ocean is a female weepy, too, but it's a female weepy with a new, repellent twist. Beth doesn't just give up her son, she loses him. And, as in Stella Dallas, Beth doesn't just commit a social error, she is that social error. Her ostensible crime? Treating her snatched son like a thing, a possession — Beth, eager to show her boys off to her former high school friends, drags the kids to the reunion, only to leave them on a luggage cart with the rest of her belongings. But Beth's real crime isn't being overly possessive or proud, it's being a modern, confident, self-realized mother — she's also a photographer with a thriving career — who kisses her husband goodbye (a doleful Treat Williams) and takes the kids on a self-centered furlough. And the moment she turns her head? The bogeyman steals her baby.

Motherhood has become a chronic problem in Hollywood, like Bruce Willis' hairline or Brad Pitt's inability to play a human being. The most recent examples of mother-loathing are last year's One True Thing and Stepmom, which, along with this year's short-lived In Dreams, solve the problem by killing off Mom. The Deep End of the Ocean doesn't kill Beth, but it puts her through a crucible so excruciating that for much of the story she resembles the living dead. Years after the kidnapping she's still sleepwalking, although the movie does perk up whenever the young actor Jonathan Jackson (playing Beth's other, now-teenage son and giving the only performance in the film) comes onscreen. It's tedious to watch Pfeiffer flop around like a rag doll, and it's a good guess that it was equally tedious to play. Pfeiffer doesn't look jazzed by her character's misery; unlike Susan Sarandon, she doesn't get off on martyrdom, which descends on her 10 minutes into the story. At least in Stella Dallas Barbara Stanwyck got to tramp around a bit before being eased out of the picture. It's not entirely mysterious why Pfeiffer's production company decided that the novel would make a good movie, or why she took the part. The book did get good reviews, and playing a character that looks like she has an internal life probably sounded appealing. But didn't anyone read the script?


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