The best way to get through “Message in a Bottle” would be to bring a book. Almost any book, for almost anything would be more stimulating than this dreary, lachrymose and incredibly poky tear-jerker that makes its audience wait and wait and wait until nearly the last second for its jerking. This relatively chaste spiritual cousin to “The Bridges of Madison County” will be well-nigh unbearable for anything resembling a sophisticated audience, but it does have a certain pre-sold audience among those who kept the book on the bestseller list for more than six months. The double weekends’ worth of sneak previews indicates that Warner Bros. believes that it has a good word-of-mouth item on its hands, and chances are that youngish-to-middle-age mainstream women will carry this to sizable B.O.
As much as anything, pic stands as a transparent attempt by Kevin Costner to regain his status as a romantic leading man after the likes of “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” He’s always had a narrow range as an actor, but here he’s given new meaning to actorly minimalism.
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Costner plays Garret Blake, a North Carolina boat builder tracked down by Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), a researcher for the Chicago Tribune, after she discovers a note in a bottle while jogging along the shore on vacation. The message, addressed to a certain Catherine, represents a simple, emotionally direct and moving expression of love by a man for a woman, and it makes for a popular item when Theresa’s boss (a jocular Robbie Coltrane) runs it as a column in the Trib.
When she meets Garret at his modest seaside home on the Outer Banks, Theresa doesn’t mention the letter or the column, but they find they have some things in common; she’s divorced with a son, while he lost his beloved Catherine two years earlier and still isn’t over it. Nor has he been able to continue work in the interim on the beautiful boat he’s designed. For him, Catherine is still around, in her paintings, in his home, and he can’t imagine being with another woman.
Still, Garret and Theresa develop a strong emotional bond, one that evolves into the physical when he visits her in Chicago. It’s only then that Garret learns Theresa found the bottle and that his most intimate confession has been widely read, which makes him bitterly hightail it home just when he might be opening up a bit.
All of this takes a good hour and a half, partly because of director Luis Mandoki’s yawningly leisurely pace, partly due to innumerable filler montages of people walking on beaches and elsewhere, and partly because the entire project seems dedicated to dawdling endlessly upon exceedingly banal details and subplots that add up to nothing.
Aside from an artificial little dispute between Garret and his former in-laws, there is no dramatic conflict or suspense, and the emotional trajectory of novelist Nicholas Sparks’ story is staggeringly predictable.
Gerald DiPego’s dialogue is strictly on the level of cliched observations about life and love, in the fashion of old-fashioned greeting-card sentiments. Lenser Caleb Deschanel has lit and glamorized the actors and the settings to a fare-thee-well, and Gabriel Yared’s score dignifies the proceedings more than they deserve.
As for the thesps, Costner pushes his Gary Cooper man-of-few-words routine so far that you begin to suspect that Garret may be a bit dense. Wright Penn conveys a sense of fierce self-reliance and toughness that works against the viewer’s ability to get under her skin and feel her vulnerability, pain and giddy hope. As Garret’s dad, Paul Newman is fine even when the old man, exasperated by his son’s unwillingness to rejoin the living, has to tell Garret, “You choose — the past or the future. Pick one and stick with it.”