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Message in a Bottle

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 12 February 1999

  Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Starring Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn,
Illeana Douglas, Robbie Coltrane, John Savage,
Jesse James and Paul Newman.

Screenplay by Gerald DiPego,
from the novel by Nicholas Sparks.

In Message in a Bottle, Robin Wright Penn plays Theresa, a second-string reporter for the "Chicago Tribune" newsroom, who finds a bottle washed up along a shoreline, with a letter inside that was written by a man to a woman he loved deeply, named "Catherine". Theresa skillfully traces the note to where it originated -- a small South Carolina coastal town, where she meets Garret (Kevin Costner), who restores and builds boats, and Garret's father, Dodge (Paul Newman), with whom he shares a house. Both men, it turns out, have suffered loss in their lives. Who, then, wrote the letter, and under what circumstances? That question, it turns out, is laid to rest about forty-five minutes into the film. Where else, then, does this story have to go?

Message in a Bottle will receive a lot of flak from people who will perceive it as being too quiet or too slow. And, indeed, it is poky in places, and predictable in others -- but the director Luis Mandoki has opened-up the film a bit, for a good reason, to let some genuine feeling into it. You have to let yourself shift-down into the rhythm and the pacing of the film, but it's worth it. The picture does not turn out to be an empty room.

message-2.jpg (14299 bytes)Theresa and Garret fall into an easy, cantering relationship, and, given the quiet splendor with which the locations are given by the superb cinematographer Caleb Deschantel, it's not hard to see why. They're even shown "spooning" together, without seeming hokey. Robin Wright Penn is a performer who stays grounded, sensible, and honest in her work, and it keeps her character from devolving into a figure of weepy emotionalism. (She has even been paired with a rather good child actor, Jesse James, who plays Theresa's son.) The moment eventually comes when Garret discovers that Theresa initially met him not because she liked him but because she was looking for a "story", and he retreats back into the boundaries within which he has set himself.

Before then, something surprising occurs in the film: the return of Kevin Costner's smile, the simply ingratiating, unabashed smile which first set him apart as a likable performer back when he appeared in Silverado. Costner has been an awfully sober actor of late, as The Bodyguard and his misadventures in The Postman attest, but he never solidifies into a grizzled, iconic loner of a figure in this picture. He opens-up in his scenes with Wright Penn in ways that he hasn't done as an actor in years, so when his Garret becomes, understandably, hurt, it gives the turn of events additional weight.

After Garret breaks things off with Theresa, he finds himself having to face the discontentment of his father, Dodge, who doesn't like how his son has tossed this girl to one side at all. Some people find the one true love of their lives, if they're lucky; and the film, in part, turns out to be a mediation about what happens when a person finds that type of love, then loses it through no fault of their own, and whether or not they are entitled to hold onto that loss or not. Paul Newman has, rather bravely, not tried to hide his age; his face and movements have become a little stiffer, and there are times when his voice becomes almost whispery. But he has not lost his scruples as a performer, or his touch. Luis Mandoki's one big contribution to this film is in focusing on the performers' eyes to convey meaning that no amount of nattering-on could do, and Newman can do more with a simple line reading, here, than any amount of carrying-on can do. It's his best work in years, and the film turns out to be the right vehicle for it.

There's only one thing I was a little mystified about, and that is the ending, where one of the characters appears to do something truly foolhardy in the spur of the moment. (I have not read the Nicholas Sparks novel the film is based on, so I don't know if the film's ending is true to the book or not.) It is somewhat brave for a film to go for a bittersweet ending at a time when the costs of moviemaking have caused filmmakers to rule out anything that could cause a film to lose money. On the other hand, we may be witnessing something that may not be so bad: the return of the enigmatic ending, where the audience is led to think, for a change, about what they've seen as they leave the theater. That's something Hollywood has not given us much credit for, lately.

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