"Moonlight Mile" is a movie at war with itself -- tuned into its characters' vicissitudes one moment, stumbling with awkward stabs at goofiness the next. The conflict appears to stem from writer-director Brad Silberling's desire to embrace every possible dimension of a family's grieving for a murdered daughter.

“Moonlight Mile” is a movie at war with itself — tuned into its characters’ vicissitudes one moment, stumbling with awkward stabs at goofiness the next. The conflict appears to stem from writer-director Brad Silberling’s desire to embrace every possible dimension of a family’s grieving for a murdered daughter. Pic’s cross-generational explorations suggest a novel as much as a film while marking an improvement on Silberling’s flat supernatural love story, “City of Angels,” but helming also lays out a pattern of tones that never clicks. Scene-stealing moments by each toplining thesp will garner aud and some critical attention for a fine autumn B.O. after Toronto gala bow.

Unintentionally, showcasing opportunities for Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter and newcomer Ellen Pompeo encapsulate pic’s larger problems. As the major figures — struggling with their circumstances in the typical Yankee town of Cape Anne, Mass., in 1973 — breathe, develop and express themselves, the characterizations become too much of a good thing: quirkiness-on-parade and character monologues, rather than lifting a scene out of the ordinary, more often stop it cold in its tracks.

Silberling’s sense of comedy is especially off-putting in the opening section, where he mixes dollops of black humor in with the sorrow of the funeral for Diana, the fiancee of Joe (Gylenhaal) and daughter of Ben and JoJo Floss (Hoffman, Sarandon). Before the movie establishes itself, the funeral reception is staged to recall “The Graduate’s” opening bash, with Gyllenhaal asked to do an imitation of young Hoffman as the confused Benjamin, which — coincidentally or not — is Hoffman’s character’s name here.

When things settle down, the roles become clearer: Joe is now a fish-out-of-water since he has no real ties to the Flosses, but decides to partner with Ben in his commercial real estate biz; Ben dives into his work with a vengeance as a way of avoiding grief; JoJo loathes wishy-washy sentiments.

Though there’s nothing like the prospect of a murder trial to focus the mind — with Holly Hunter’s no-nonsense attorney Mona as the Flosses’ prosecuting rep — Joe is anything but clear-eyed, aimlessly drifting into Ben’s business and emotionally prime to fall for the first pretty gal who comes along.

That would be wise-cracking, mail-sorting postal clerk Bertie (Pompeo), who gets kicked out of retrieving Joe’s and Diana’s now-useless wedding invitations before they’re sent off. To complete the novelistic aura, the script also has Bertie working tables at the bar owned by her b.f., three years MIA in Vietnam. But the parallel between Joe’s loss and her own is too pat, leading to an inevitable romance that Gyllenhaal and Pompeo work to layer with authentic feelings.

Girding these emotions is a huge array of period songs, which tend to be either inspired choices (Elton John’s and Bernie Taupin’s “Razor Face,” Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me” and, natch, the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” Bertie’s favorite song) or excessively comment in the “Forrest Gump” manner.

Even the understanding Bertie can’t fathom why Joe works for his non-dad, but Joe has a terrible secret: He and Diana had decided to call the wedding off just days before her murder, and now he can’t bear to tell the folks. This builds a new emotional tension that somewhat revives the second hour, but tellingly doesn’t build Joe into a more interesting center of attention.

What’s interesting is watching Sarandon’s and Hoffman’s extremely different responses to this revelation. Because JoJo adroitly intuits Joe’s secret (in the best of Sarandon’s three speeches), however, it cuts into whatever melodrama spills when Ben more tearfully learns about it. The dramatic turn also cuts short an unconvincing, time-consuming subplot involving Ben’s plans for a retail development.

Bertie, though, gets lost in the picture as the Floss family turmoil rises and the murder trial ensues — a sure sign that Silberling has far too much to handle as a storyteller. A quieter tone of humor returns near the end, when Joe finds some inner reconciliation, and Ben comes upon his own way of dealing with the visual scars of Diana’s murder.

Gyllenhaal’s perf as Joe appears more planned than intuitively felt, and his sleepy-eyed charm doesn’t lessen Joe’s more infuriating qualities. Hoffman and Sarandon embody everything about this movie’s wish to play against expectations, and they both draw on considerable reserves when the comedy is dropped for serious stuff. Pompeo makes a vivid first impression.The backgrounded character portraits tend to be the strongest, as with the extremely sharp Hunter or the wily Dabney Coleman as a commercial developer.

Production choices are first-class, including Phedon Papamichael’s lensing, Missy Stewart’s production design and Mary Zophres’ costuming, all imbued with a natural, lived-in look that deliberately underplays early ’70s style and setting. Massive songlist reduces Mark Isham’s score (carried by Hot Tuna fret masters Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady) to an afterthought.

Moonlight Mile

Production

A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Touchstone Pictures and Hyde Park Entertainment presentation of a Reveal Entertainment/Gran Via/Punch production. Produced by Mark Johnson, Brad Silberling. Executive producers, Patricia Whitcher, Susan Sarandon, Ashok Amritraj, David Hoberman. Co-producer, Brian W. Cook. Directed, written by Brad Silberling.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Phedon Papamichael; editor, Lisa Zeno Churgin; music, Mark Isham; music supervisor, Dawn Soler; production designer, Missy Stewart; art director, Mark Worthington; set designer, Gina B. Cranham; set decorator, Katherine Lucas; costume designer, Mary Zophres; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Pud Cusack; sound designer, Richard King; supervising sound editor, King; assistant director, Michele Panelli Venetis; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios screening room, Burbank, Aug. 29, 2002. (In Toronto Film Festival --Gala.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Joe Nast - Jake Gyllenhaal Ben Floss - Dustin Hoffman JoJo Floss - Susan Sarandon Mona Camp - Holly Hunter Bertie Knox - Ellen Pompeo Ty - Richard T. Jones Stan Michaels - Allan Corduner Mike Mulcahey - Dabney Coleman Cheryl - Akelsia Landeau

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