Message in a Bottle (1999)
Directed by Luis Mandoki
Cast: Robin Wright Penn, Kevin Costner, Paul Newman, Jesse James, Illeana Douglas, John Savage, Robbie Coltrane, Viveka Davis.
1999 126 minutes
Rated: (for profanity, mild violence, and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 13, 1999.
Director Luis Mandoki's last film was the superb, serious 1994 drama "When a Man Loves a Woman," but his luck has ultimately run out with his latest picture, "Message in a Bottle," which is the worst type of romance, a movie that tugs so relentlessly and violently at the heartstrings that it miraculously manages to dry out your eyes rather than tear them up. Everything that occurs can be telegraphed way in advance since this same type of story has been done many times before---and much better---so there's an absence of suspense, and the film ultimately moves at such a very, very deliberate pace, as if it is trying to make great, "meaningful" statements and plot developments, that it just becomes a tedious bore to sit through.
"Message in a Bottle" begins with Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), a single mother and researcher at the Chicago Tribune, whom finds a bottle washed up on shore as she is jogging one day. Inside the bottle is an anonymous love letter addressed to a mystery woman named Catherine, and Theresa is so taken aback by its honesty and sweetness that she shows it around at her work and, to her objection, finds that her editor has placed the letter in the newspaper. Soon, a heavy research is conducted to find out who wrote the letter based on the type of bottle and a ship logo on the top of the typed message, and after it is traced to a man named Garrett Blake, Theresa finds herself traveling to the Outer Banks, a boating town in North Carolina, to find out the specifics of the message. Of course, Garrett turns out to be a handsome, rugged man around Theresa's age and played by Kevin Costner. She is immediately charmed by him, but hesitant to unveil the truth of why she is there, and finds that Catherine was Garrett's late wife who died a few years earlier. Do you think you know where this is headed? Most likely you do, and I wouldn't call it giving away anything to say that by the picture's end, the movie has fallen into deep, artificial melodrama that I didn't buy for a second.
If there are any positive things to say about "Message in a Bottle," it is that the performances by Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman, as Garrett's stubborn, but loving father, are far above par to be in such a wasteful, "Shaggy Dog" love story, and that the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel takes great advantage of the beautiful eastern coast, and paints Chicago as an equally alluring city. Meanwhile, Costner has yet to redeem himself for some of the less-than-stellar films that he has made recently. It seems that with such bad luck, he wouldn't want to make another movie set near water, but here he is again with one of the main, and most ridiculous, centerpieces set on a storm-swept sea. The other actors are all, sadly, wasted, including Illeana Douglas, an underused actress who seems to always get stuck with the "friend" roles, here playing Penn's confidante and co-worker at the Tribune.
The first half of "Message in a Bottle" plays like a hum-drum, trite television movie for the Lifetime channel, as Theresa spends a great deal of time "getting to know" Garrett, with dialogue that is not the least bit stimulating or entertaining. Usually, I am the type of person to practically salivate over dialogue-laden sequences since the film is no doubt trying to develop the characters and their relationships, but here it all rang with a resounding falseness since the dialogue felt "written," and not as if people were really "talking." When the main characters of a film have very little of interest to say to each other, and are not particularly interesting themselves, you know immediately that you are in trouble.
I swear that while watching "Message in a Bottle," I felt as if I had just read the screenplay in its entirety before arriving at the theater (heck, in actuality I'm not even familiar to the novel this is based on, by Nicholas Sparks). Always one step ahead of the characters, the movie ran so closely and tightly to the constraints of the tried-and-true Hollywood melodrama, the film strip often seemed to almost be in danger of tearing. Nobody wins prizes for guessing that Garrett will eventually find out Theresa's secret, and that several obstacles will come within their ways of living happily ever after. This same exact problem occurred in last year's very, very similar (watch this, and you will realize just how similar I mean) Meg Ryan-Nicolas Cage romantic drama, "City of Angels."
Although Theresa is deeply touched by the "heartfelt" letter that she finds in the bottle, perhaps the filmakers might have been better off finding a message in a bottle of their own, preferably before filming began. It should have read, "Memo to screenwriters: Use you brain!"
©1999 by Dustin Putman