Message in a Bottle (1999)

Message in a BottleStarring Robin Wright Penn, Kevin Costner, Paul Newman, John Savage, Illeana Douglas.
Written by Gerald DiPego based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.
Directed by Luis Mandoki.

Grade: D-

Review by Dana Knowles.

Plot synopsis: Loveless divorcee/single-mother and journalist takes a vacation and finds a message in a bottle. The message is a gooey love letter to a deceased wife. Intrigued and enamored, she sets off to find the author. And (of course!) love.

Robin Wright Penn struggles mightily to infuse some life and heart into this turgid romance, but alas... there's still no there there.  Despite the mournful "poetry" of the letters that ignites Penn's interest in Kevin Costner's character, his surly pouting and willful detachment are so unappealing that director Luis Mandoki is forced to resort to the dreadful falling in love by montage approach. One can only conclude that what they say to one another in these bad music video swoonfests is utterly unlike what is said in their dialogue scenes, because there is no apparent chemistry between the characters at all when they interact. Perhaps Penn's character is aware that she's courting Kevin-Costner-the-Movie-Star, and not some whiny, self-absorbed boat builder. No other explanation is plausible.

There are a few moments of high drama, however. Prepare yourself for the Oh, no!! She moved the dead wife's painting tools an inch! scene. It is truly harrowing. And... when you've barely had time to recover from that emotional devastation... you will be ripped asunder by the Spilling icewater on the dead wife's tennis shoes! scene. My advice: bring along a Jumbo box of KleenexTM. (In case you drool on yourself when you doze off.)

Comic relief is provided by John Savage as the equally-unable-to-get-over-the-dead-woman brother-in-law. He and his kin seem to have wandered into town from some Hillbilly Hovel, though it turns out they're also longtime residents of this sleepy seaside village. One wonders how Paul Newman and Costner managed to become such rural sophisticates if Savage is typical of the local culture. A burning question... left unanswered.

This is one of those movies where everyone has to be as noble and deeply sensitive as possible, as if the audience will be put off by anything less. Thus, you have a man who is so devoted to a dead woman (proving what real love is made of, and proving how sensitive he is) that the living woman loves him for that devotion, but needs him to drop it so she can have him. Oh! The painful irony! The fact that he's clueless and insensitive to the living woman is never really seen as a measure of his character or sensitivity. It's just presented as the natural state of a man who loves too much.

Sigh. The inherent conflict in a story like this does carry the potential for interesting drama. But there's no substance in this clockwork plot. No nuance. No humanity. Just representations of quandaries, and representations of outcomes. To the extent that I was still interested by the end, I found the overall outcome to be a real eye-roller in its pathetic attempt at Inspirational Philosophy. Have you ever experienced the discomfort of yawning and gagging simultaneously? It ain't pretty.

The most nauseating aspect of this film is the apparent continuation of Costner's quest to convince us that quiet nobility is his strength as an actor. Memo to Kevin: Two Words... Folksy Charm. You have it in spades. Use it or lose it, bud.

Review © February 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Image © 1998 Warner Bros.

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