Moonlight Mile

January, 2002, Drama

Directed by:Brad Silberling

Starring:Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Pompeo, and Holly Hunter

Screenwriters beware; tragedy is tough, comedy tougher still, but tragicomedy? Well-neigh impossible. Would that Writer/Director Brad Silberling heeded that advice; his obviously earnest and well-intentioned semi-autobiographical screenplay strives hard to ponder life's deepest questions; love, death, grief, commitment and perseverance. In the current issue of T. V. Guide, Silberling sketches the facts that lie behind this film; the murder of his "almost finance", the ensuing grief-induced gulf which occurred in his life and that of her parents, and how all three of them found the ability to move on. It's a touching article, albeit an overwritten one, but the inability of its author to convey intensely personal information without slipping into pathos blunts the value of the essay as surely as it curdles the emotions of the movie. 

In it, Jake Gyllenhaal, plays Joe, engaged to the recently murdered daughter of real estate agent Dustin Hoffman and his writer-wife Susan Sarandon. The film opens with the funeral of their only child and the manner in which each of the principles reacts to it. Hoffman descends into hyperactive denial, Sarandon stokes her writer's block with anger and Gyllenhaal succumbs to numbed inertia. The screenplay follows Hoffman's dogged insistence that Joe stick to a pre-nuptial plan to join Hoffman's real estate firm, despite clear signs that Gylenhall's character is concealing both a growing resistance to the idea as well as a secret he harbors which he’s unable to share with the dead girl's parents. All this despite the fact he continues to live with them pending the criminal proceedings that they all hope will bring some closure to their mourning.

In the midst of this befuddled process, Gyllenhall meets the assistant post-mistress of the small New England town where his bride-to-be's family comfortably reside. Newcomer Ellen Pompeo is a bit too cute in her initial entry into the story, but it's a fault of the script, not the actress, who gives a lively and appealing performance. 

Inevitably, the protagonists confront their hidden ghosts, reach out to one another in previously unanticipated ways, and begin to reassemble their lives. And new loves, along with deepened appreciations of old ones, carry the day. All of this could have carried far more impact however, if director Silberling had reigned in writer Silberling's tendency to mistake maudlin for meaningful in his dialogue, and to resist hauling in distracting bits more suitable for an afternoon T.V. soap opera. There's a dog here for example, that can be predictably expected to do all the things cute dogs do in movies, and an emphasis on a shattered window at the crime scene that gets milked for emotional reactions not once, but three times, the last of which is the more egregious because of the obvious manner in which its been staged. The director's visual sense is quiet and understated, but his script drowns Hoffman and Sarandon in so many predictable clichés that even their considerable skills can't breathe life and veracity into their characters. Hoffman's transition from shallow, insecure salesman to insightful, self-confident risk taker lacks credibility, and his trademark nervous smile carries a trace of rictus here that's especially disconcerting. Sarandon, one of the finest actresses at work today, seems embarrassed to be portraying a character so given to supposedly snappy 

dialogue that's meant to convey a stiff upper lip persona; the snap may live in her words, but it dies in the dullness of Sarandon's expression, and especially in those remarkably evocative eyes.

As for Gyllenhall, he turns into another of those patented, Salinger-esque tortured youth performances; is there another young actor who can look so completely lost and confused, picture after picture? His morose soul-searching strives to be the pivotal point of the film, but here it simply emerges as indecisive, personal weakness. When the vibrant Pompeo begins to sends out signals of interest, you're left questioning her good judgment, not his good fortune.

The critics I've read are over the lot on this film, some finding it as disappointing as I did, and others hailing it and the performances it contains as among the best of the year. But good intentions and serious themes do not a great movie make; this cinematic tear-jerker just doesn't explain its own characters and their motivations with sufficient clarity and honesty to allow Mile the opportunity to rise above the level of a typical chick flick. Not since last year's My Life As A House have fundamental issues about handling human tragedy been dealt with in such a schmaltzy way.       

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