Message in a Bottle
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Kevin Costner (Garret Blake), Robin Wright Penn (Theresa Osborne), Paul Newman (Dodge Blake), John Savage (Johnny Land), Illeana Douglas (Lina Paul), Robbie Coltrane (Charlie Toschi), Jesse James (Jason Osborne), Bethel Leslie (Marta Land), Tom Aldredge (Hank Land)
"Message in a Bottle" is a somewhat unwieldy romantic film that teeters constantly even though it is built on the solid foundation of timeless romantic notions: endless love that extends beyond death, broken people learning to love again, the power of honest, heart-rending prose to reduce even the strongest, most independent sort to a weeping puddle, and the idea that a love letter can float through the ocean for two years and be found on the beach by just the right person.
Call it luck or call it fate, depending on your outlook. Fanciful romantics will probably find much to swoon about in "Message in a Bottle," which is based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, who has moved up alongside Robert James Waller as America's foremost chronicler of sensitive men and soul-searching women. Cynics will probably find much to loathe and mock, as this film is shameless in its modern romanticism and the glorification of its beautiful protagonists, who may be hurting on the inside, but always look good.
Robin Wright Penn stars as Theresa Osborne, a divorced mother who works as a researcher at the "Chicago Tribune." She finds the titular love letter in a blue-tinted bottle on a New England beach while on vacation. She reads the letter inside, addressed to a woman named "Catherine" and signed only "G." It contains lines like "You are my true north," and Theresa is so taken by the love and dedication in its words that she becomes determined to find the author. Lucky that she is a professional researcher at a major metropolitan newspaper with oodles of resources at her disposal--it doesn't take her long to find him.
When she does pinpoint the mysterious author in a small North Carolina coastal town, he turns out to be a sailboat builder played by Kevin Costner. The "G" stands for "Garret," and Theresa learns that the letter was written to Garret's wife who died two years earlier. Theresa hides the fact that she has read the letter and tracked him down, and instead pretends to be a tourist staying for a few days. Love and affection quickly sparks between them, and it becomes so intense that Garret even makes a trip up to Chicago to visit Theresa after she leaves. But, when a romance is built on a secret, you know it's bound to come out and trouble will ensue.
The film as a whole has its good points and it has its bad points. Give credit to the fact that it understands the simple beauties of physical affection and sleeping together without "sleeping together." Imagine that: a movie where the lovers actually ease into their physical intimacy instead of jumping in the sack on the first date.
Unfortunately, subtlety is scare as the director, Luis Mandoki ("When a Man Loves a Woman"), and the screenwriter, Gerald Di Pego ("Phenomenon"), have a penchant for overdramatizing. Early in the film there's a fistfight where strong, well-written dialogue would have gotten the job done, and the last 15 minutes are so overwrought both dramatically and in terms of violence that they feel like they were imported from another film.
The musical score by Gabriel Yared ("City of Angels") is unmemorable, but Mandoki swells it to ear-shattering crescendos whenever he gets the chance (which is quite often). It is usually a sign of weak drama when the music has to work overtime, but what Mandoki doesn't seem to realize is that many of these scenes work just fine on their own, and he actually ruins them with his pressing insistence. We know this is romantic, we know this is tragic, we don't need quite so many road signs. The worst example is a scene where, after two years of fighting, Garret and Catherine's brother (John Savage) finally make their peace without saying a word, but with a continual surge of music that drains the scene of true emotion and fills it with cheap sentiment.
Costner, who hasn't been seen on-screen since the debacle that was "The Postman" (1997) continues his penchant for playing remote, loner characters. Here, however, his character has reason to be remote, and Costner's quiet solemnity actually works in his favor. He broods, but not so much that he can't smile and laugh when the time is right.
Robin Wright Penn gives warmth and humanity to her role as Theresa, although her character seems almost too simple. She is intended to be a wounded character, a woman whose wandering husband has shattered her ability to trust and love, yet that aspect of her character never really comes out except when she explains it explicitly in dialogue. Wright Penn sometimes seems almost too confident and sure of herself, while Costner acts like a shy schoolboy who's never kissed a girl.
However, in almost every scene he's in, Paul Newman takes center stage as Garret's cantankerous but gruffly lovable pop. His character adds a needed dash of flavor to the somewhat bland storyline, even though the script often taxes him into acting as a catalyst to move Garret and Theresa's relationship along. Nevertheless, Newman proves that, as an actor, he has aged like fine wine, and his performance here is both comical and touching.
"Message in a Bottle" will certainly satisfy those looking for a plausible romance between two beautiful people--the development of Garret and Theresa's relationship is nicely sustained and rarely forced. Physically, the film is everything we would expect from a lavish Hollywood romance: Costner and Wright Penn always look gorgeous, even when they've been out on a sailboat in the wind and sea all day long, and the production design by Jeffery Beecroft assures us that all the characters do their home shopping either at The Pottery Barn or through the Sundance mail-order catalogue.
But, then again, down-to-earth realism is not exactly this film's forte--it excels better in whimsical dreaminess with only the surface texture of death and divorce to give it any perceived weight. After all, Theresa writes one good column for the newspaper and is instantly promoted to a higher position with her own office. Who knows how nice her already impeccably decorated apartment will look once the salary increase kicks in.
©1999 James Kendrick