Message in a Bottle

Friday February 12, 1999

     "The fault is not in our stars," Shakespeare wrote once upon a time, and though he wasn't referring to "Message in a Bottle," he could have been. Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman do everything major attractions can do to make "Message in a Bottle" into a three-hankie extravaganza, but they're finally let down by a film that tampers both too much and not enough with what looked to be a sure thing.
     "Message" is based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks, a.k.a. "the king of read-it-and-weep," which sold 600,000 copies and counting in hardback and spent months and months on major bestseller lists. Producer Denise Di Novi was such a fan that she convinced Warner Bros. to buy the book when it was still partially in outline form, and--or so the press notes claim--she was so convinced that Costner should play the lead that she dreamed about him in the part.
     Yet even with this kind of audience-proven pedigree, the makers of "Message," including director Luis Mandoki and screenwriter Gerald DiPego, couldn't leave well enough alone. In typical studio development fashion, they've fussed and worried over everything in the story, especially its last third, making what was quick and clean in the book labored and overly elaborate. The result is exposition overkill and a dragged-out finale that turns what should have been a Tear Duct Special into a deflating experience, making what worked in the book unacceptable on the screen.
     It's not that "Message," with its picture-book exteriors swooningly photographed by Caleb Deschanel, was ever destined to be anything but a complete romantic fantasy for which reality checks need to be checked at the door. But because the acting is so right for this kind of production, the film threatens to get to us until faulty exposition abruptly pulls the rug out from beneath our feet.
     Simultaneously energizing "Message" and holding it together is Wright Penn, whose performance should catapult her into more major leading roles. Wright Penn has not lacked for work since her debut in "The Princess Bride," but because her previous films ("State of Grace," "She's So Lovely," "Moll Flanders" among them) have come and gone under most moviegoers' radar, her classic beauty, formidable integrity and complete believability even in a flimsy role are fresh enough to make an impact.
     Wright Penn plays Theresa Osborne, a single mother who works as a researcher for the Chicago Tribune. After dropping her son Jason (Jesse James) off with his remarried father, she takes a vacation on Cape Cod, where she finds, embedded in the sand on one of those dazzling, pristine beaches that movies like this specialize in, a bottle with--that's right--a message in it.
     And not just any message. It's a letter from a man to a woman, a letter so filled with romantic longing and poetic passion that Theresa, not to mention all the people back at the Chicago Tribune she ends up sharing the message with, are simply flabbergasted that such a paragon of sensitivity might actually be walking on the Earth.
     Soon enough, the wheels of the great newspaper start turning, and Theresa discovers that the writer's name is Garret (with one "t," though the book insists on two) Blake, that the woman he's written to is his beloved late wife Catherine, and that the man himself is alive and well on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Though her editor (an amusing Robbie Coltrane) warns her, "You're thinking Heathcliff and this guy is probably Captain Ahab," Theresa feels compelled to go directly to the North Carolina shore and seek the bottler out, though she doesn't feel compelled (O foolish woman!) to tell him the truth about why she's there.
     As boat builder and restorer Garret Blake, Costner is completely in his element and gives a surprisingly successful performance. The kind of complete earnestness that led the actor to invest himself in "The Postman" and caused him to tell Madonna, in a celebrated moment in the documentary "Truth or Dare," that her stage show was "neat," is exactly what's called for in the part of a sturdy straight-arrow with the most reassuring of masculine presences. Costner is an actor we don't want to be trying too hard, and here, as the wary, withdrawn Garret, he doesn't have to.
     Theresa, that genteel bundle of energy, is, of course, just the type of woman to successfully draw Garret out, and director Mandoki, whose last film was the equally soggy "When a Man Loves a Woman," makes the most of their natural interaction, of interchanges like his "I used to be better with people; I used to be charming" and her "Sorry I missed that." Even simple moments like Garret telling Theresa, "I make a perfect steak; it's the best thing I do," benefit from their joint charisma.
     The third wheel in this scenario, and someone who might have played Costner's role if he were younger, is Newman as Dodge, Garret's grumpy old coot of a father. Newman has reached the stage of his career where he has so much presence and skill to call upon that each new role feels like a gift we are not quite worthy of. His Dodge is a gem of a performance as Newman makes things look easy that other actors couldn't begin to accomplish.
     The double-bind of "Message's" plot is that the very thing that attracted Theresa to Garret, the intensity and duration of his apparently endless love for his dead wife, is the quality that stands in the way of the two of them being happy, should she ever get around to telling him the truth about how they met. Wright Penn and Costner are so sincere in their attempts to work through this conundrum that the film's bollixed final sections are especially unfortunate. You almost wish "Message in a Bottle" had discarded this part of the story with the same alacrity used in jettisoning Garret's superfluous final "t." It just gets in the way.

Message in a Bottle, 1999. PG-13, for a scene of sexuality. In association with Bel-Air Entertainment, a Tig production, in association with Di Novi Pictures, released by Warner Bros. Director Luis Mandoki. Producers Denise Di Novi, Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner. Screenplay Gerald DiPego, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Editor Steven Weisberg. Costumes Bernie Pollack. Music Gabriel Yared. Production design Jeffrey Beecroft. Art directors Steve Saklad, Mark Zuelzke. Set decorators Dorree Cooper, Elaine O'Donnell. Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes. Kevin Costner as Garret. Robin Wright Penn as Theresa. Paul Newman as Dodge. John Savage as Johnny Land. Illeana Douglas as Lina. Robbie Coltrane as Charlie.

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