Movie review, 'Moonlight Mile'

Movies that try to mix moods and tones - to summon up the jarring incongruities of life itself - can both stimulate and amuse you. But they also can jar you right out of the story itself. In "Moonlight Mile," a really weird hybrid, writer/director Brad Silberling tries to filter the raw, painful emotion of a young man who loses his ex-fiancee in a pointless murder through a typical stylized Hollywood story line.

Sometimes he's successful, and he has gotten some excellent, high-profile stars, including Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon as the dead girl's parents, Holly Hunter as the district attorney prosecuting her killer, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Nast, the young guy caught in the middle of everything.

But the movie doesn't really jell. Glossy, good-looking and well-produced, it affects you and even sometimes moves you, but it doesn't really convincingly connect.

Actually, the premise is so wacky that it would probably take a genius to put it across. "Mile" is set in 1973 in fictional Cape Anne, Mass. Silberling's protagonist, Joe, has broken off his engagement to a girl, Diana Floss, who was then killed because she was caught in the line of fire when a disturbed man shot his wife. Joe then travels to Cape Anne and - concealing the truth of their split - allows himself to be sucked into her family. Even as he lets himself become a surrogate son to Diana's parents, Ben and JoJo Floss (Hoffman and Sarandon), he messes things up further by falling in love with another Cape Anne woman, Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), a salty bar manager.

The movie treats Joe's predicament as both comic and pathetic, but it never really convincingly explains why he lets himself fall into such a bizarre bind. When Joe shows up for the funeral, Diana's parents, inwardly ravaged by their daughter's death, virtually adopt him. Ben takes him into his commercial real estate business (renaming it Floss and Son), and funny, acerbic JoJo turns him into the sounding board for her endless flow of vitriolic wisecracks and irreverent jibes. Both of them also bring Joe to their strategy sessions with the local district attorney, Hunter as Mona Camp, a character clearly modeled on O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark.

Joe, though, keeps neglecting to tell Diana's parents the truth about the broken engagement. The film is all about his deception, but his motives remain all but incomprehensible. Silberling also delays the revelation of the lie until so late in the movie that the earlier scenes lose a lot of potential dramatic punch. What does Joe have to gain, other than the pleasure of staying in a house with surrogate parents? Why is he so seemingly ready to abandon the other side of his life, his absent relatives and friends?

When Joe finally faces the truth, it's in a flamboyant pseudo-Capra scene that struck me as total nonsense. It's mostly due to the actors, in fact - Hoffman, Sarandon, Hunter and, surprisingly, Pompeo - that all this stays entertaining and diverting. Hoffman has the patent by now on nervous bourgeois desperation, and Sarandon's JoJo is exactly the type of cynical small-town diva who makes the worst of small-town life bearable.

Part of the problem with being a successful Hollywood moviemaker is that you may begin to perceive your own life in terms of movies and movie projects. Silberling has frankly admitted that Joe is based on himself; in real life, Silberling's girlfriend, TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was killed by a stalker-fan. But "Moonlight Mile" doesn't have anything to do with that famous case. Silberling instead seems to be trying to reinvent the story of his own youthful bereavement through the prism of movies like "The Graduate" and "Terms of Endearment."

Even though the film doesn't ring true, Silberling is a canny director working with great actors. His previous films, "Casper" and "City of Angels," at least looked and moved well, and so does this film, though the attempt to mix realistic comedy and social satire with psychological domestic drama and a semi-courtroom thriller mostly seems to implode.

"Moonlight Mile" takes its title from the bluesy, dissonant Rolling Stones ballad on their album "Sticky Fingers."

Silberling tries to replicate the song's mournful, bittersweet intensity as well as the giddiness and angst of the early '70s. Hits by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Elton John and Jefferson Airplane create a kind of time capsule. In this case, the songs are more evocative than the scenes, and the actors are more memorable than their roles.

In the end, the movie does what Silberling certainly didn't want: It exploits his grief without really illuminating it.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Moonlight Mile"
Directed and written by Brad Silberling; photographed by Phedon Papamichael; edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin; production designed by Missy Stewart; music by Mark Isham; music supervisor Dawn Soler; produced by Mark Johnson, Silberling. A Buena Vista Pictures release; opens Friday, Sept. 27. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language and sexual material).
Joe Nast - Jake Gyllenhaal
Ben Floss - Dustin Hoffman
JoJo Floss - Susan Sarandon
Mona Camp - Holly Hunter
Bertie Knox - Ellen Pompeo Mike Mulcahey - Dabney Coleman

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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