Manipulative `Moonlight Mile'

Heartfelt script fails to give actors depth

Movie Review

October 04, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

There's plenty of emotion up there on the screen in Moonlight Mile, writer-director Brad Silberling's vaguely autobiographical look at a young man who's come to live with the parents of his murdered fiancee. Unfortunately, the emotions are so relentless and one-note, the overall result is more stultifying than affecting.

There's no question the material here is heartfelt; Silberling based the film on his life after the 1989 murder of his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Shaeffer. But Silberling (City of Angels) spends too much time making sure the audience feels a certain way, and not enough time letting his actors breathe life into their characters in ways both more subtle and more resonant. While the film includes moments of extraordinary honesty - moments when it becomes clear how good the film could have been - in the end, it's too simplistically manipulative to seem real.

The movie starts at the funeral for Diana Floss, shot to death because she happened to be standing in a diner next to a woman whose husband was out for revenge. Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), her fiance, has moved in with her parents, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo (Susan Sarandon). Each is having trouble getting through all this. Ben tries to pretend nothing happened, putting all his effort into everyone else's needs. JoJo lets her anger flow freely, regardless of the circumstances or the audience. And Joe is trying to hold the Nasts' lives together, at the expense of his emotional well-being.

And so we watch, as it becomes obvious that none of these people is very good at the grieving process - and this is the film at its most perceptive. Since there's no handbook on how to get over a loved one's murder - JoJo, for one, takes all the self-help books her well-meaning friends give her and throws them in the fire - the only thing to do is stumble onward, in hopes of finding someone or something that will make the pain go away.

Ben and JoJo never find that, but unexpectedly, Joe does, in the person of Bertie (newcomer Ellen Pompeo), a postal clerk and part-time bartender who, alone among residents of the small town, refuses to treat him like an object of pity

Most of the best lines in the film come from Sarandon, who makes JoJo a character with shadings that only gradually become apparent; she's angry and selfish and shell-shocked, but also loving, vulnerable and surprisingly compassionate - when she calmly explains to Joe how she and Ben remain together, even though they're each other's polar opposite, Moonlight Mile displays the sort of hard-fought insight it flatters itself into thinking it displays throughout.

Hoffman does what he can with Ben, but his casting here is a major mistake - not so much because of what he does, but because of what the film does to him. Throughout, there are little asides to Hoffman's career, scenes and dialogue that seem to have been lifted straight out of The Graduate and Rain Man. That would have been fine for a Hoffman retrospective, but has no place in a movie that portends to be after some sort of higher emotional truth.

The movie also stumbles by never telling us anything about Diana, until a contrived final scene in which Joe has a breakdown while testifying at the trial of Diana's murderer. Finally, with 10 minutes left, we start hearing details about Diana's life. But the details come too late to carry the necessary emotional punch. And everything ends with all the loose ends way-too-tidily wrapped up.

It's too bad this film couldn't somehow be grafted onto last year's similarly themed In the Bedroom. That film got it right, in maintaining that grief is not always manageable, and rarely rational; where it stumbled was in its unrelenting gloom. Moonlight Mile leavens the mood occasionally, but it cheapens things by insisting that everybody onscreen and in the audience leavethe theater smiling.

Moonlight Mile

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon

Directed by Brad Silberling

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated PG-13 (Brief sensuality, brief strong language)

Time 122 minutes

SUN SCORE * *

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