Moonlight Mile
review by Elias Savada, 27 September 2002

Positioning itself as one of the fall season's early dramatic contenders for a sliver of Oscar buzz, veteran TV director Brad Silberling's Moonlight Mile is thankfully light-years ahead of his previous theatrical efforts (Casper, City of Angels). Yes, perhaps not as commercial a property as his two earlier features (which grossed a combined $500-million worldwide), here is obviously a more intimate, personal effort, the kind that voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences admire so much. This emotionally sad yet heartwarming story of a would-have-been son-in-law reluctantly catering to the bereaved needs of his murdered fiancée's parents is squarely rooted in the 1989 death of Rebecca Schaeffer, a television star (My Sister Sam) who was engaged to Silberling. As writer, director, and co-producer (with Mark Johnson), Silberling has prescribed a self-cathartic cinematic tale that both spiritually allows him to deal with a tremendous personal tragedy while also sharing a powerfully written dramatic narrative, filled with tenderness and comic flourishes, with his audience.

The film is also a well-deserved step forward in the blossoming career of actor Jake Gyllenhaal (yes, that's his sister Maggie in the recently released Secretary), whose puppy-dog face and subdued performances have won him legions of fans who have admired his inspired, subtle contributions to such films as October Sky, Donnie Darko, and The Good Girl. He would have made a fine Spiderman if Tobey Maguire had refused that role. Working in the shadow of Academy Award-winners Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon, Gyllenhaal more than holds his own against the senior talent, well justified in earning him a top-billed credit—even if some of the higher-octane stars end up bringing in their own fans. Hoffman and Sarandon, as actors and producers (he through his Punch Productions, she as a co-credited executive producer) have graciously allowed Gyllenhaal to shine. He substantially grows his career with a humdinger of a role, as Joe Nast, in a performance awakened as the film begins in the bed of his once bride-to-be, now dead and recently buried, and sustained through to the final edema-induced cure.

Set in New England in the early 1970s, when songs were ten cents a pop on the local hangout jukebox and young men were confused enough about serving, or not, in Uncle Sam's ill-fated effort in Vietnam, Joe skulks through his listless life and the depressed hallways of the passion-filled home of ex-hippies JoJo and Ben Floss. The rhythm and love that was their lives have been irrevocably shattered by the death of their daughter Diana at a local diner, a bystander casualty of another distraught couples' jealous demons. Joe becomes his non-in-laws' therapeutic tonic, an adoptive figure forged as a replacement for their shared loss. It's obvious enough that Joe is just a bludgeon for the emotional punishment the family is trying to deal with, yet he grudgingly digs himself in deeper with each passing week, too limp to speak out. His situation threatens to transform Joe into a figurative living grave-marker when Ben instinctively enjoins his "son" to become a partner in his commercial real-estate business. Decades ago Dustin Hoffman played a character (coincidentally named Ben) endeared to a possible life-numbing career in plastics in The Graduate; I suspect it is not as clearly unintentional that Hoffman's then career-blooming role is so flatteringly rewritten here.

As much as Moonlight Mile serves up a heaping tablespoon of filial misfortune and how three people come to grips with it, there is also a distinct co-relation to how America and the world are dealing with the year-old grief of September 11—that we must clear away the acres of debris, rebuild (yet not forget), and move forward. Life will and must go on. New people will enter our lives, as in Joe's case does the spunky, refreshingly honest Bertie Knox (a terrific first major feature spin from Boston native Ellen Pompeo), a local tomboy/postmistress/barkeep suffering her own Vietnam-induced conflicts.

Serving as an accelerant for the family angst is the town's fierce local district attorney Mona Camp (Holly Hunter), whose forceful prosecution of the Floss' daughter's case provides a crucial turning point in Joe's ability to deal with Diana's death and its guilt-laden aftermath.

The score by Mark Isham adds its own perfect period flavor, and the film's soundtrack is an outstanding collection of touching musical moments from the '70s, including the eponymous Rolling Stones tune.

What makes Moonlight Mile such a tear-filled joy is how quickly and easily the director-writer has squeezed every single viewer into Diana/Joe's empathic room in the Floss household, stuffed with photographs and horse show ribbons. Silberling's diagnosis and cure is reminiscent of those recommended by an old-time family doctor, molded by his small-town, Capra-esque comic charm, whose house calls to his ailing patients were grave enough to recommend a serious dose of somberness, yet always quaintly cheerful enough to lighten up the face of a distraught child. Moonlight Mile is that well-prescribed cherry lollipop.

Written and
Directed by:

Brad Silberling

Jake Gyllenhaal
Dustin Hoffman
Susan Sarandon
Holly Hunter
Ellen Pompeo
Dabney Coleman

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.






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