With that said, Moonlight Mile is only half bad. Sure, it's weepy and sentimental and fails to take full advantage of an emotionally fertile premise. But as a story of loss, self-discovery and rebirth it succeeds as much as it fails. If this were baseball, Moonlight Mile would be batting .500, which is good. But this is the movies, so half bad means two and a half stars.
The film finds Joe Nast (It Boy on-the-rise Jake Gyllenhaal, bugging his eyes and looking askance like a graduate from the Tobey Maguire School of Acting) in a curious situation. After attending the funeral of his fiancée Diana, he strands himself in her childhood home in rural New England. Sleeping in the dead girl's bed and carrying a crushing secret (he and Diana broke up just before she was killed), Joe stays the post-wedding course that allows Diana's parents, commercial real estate agent Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and writer JoJo (Susan Sarandon) to maintain insulated emotional connections after her death. Slowly Joe commits himself to hanging around and continuing with the initial post-wedding plans--settling down in the town and going into business with Ben. But the illusion is challenged when Joe falls in love with fellow tortured soul Bertie (played by Renée Zellweger doppelganger Ellen Pompeo) and the ersatz family is slowly forced to face the reality of their loss.
With so much emotional terrain to cover, Moonlight Mile bites off more narrative than it can chew. Just count the subplots; should Joe tell his surrogate parents that the wedding was cancelled? Will Ben and Joe close the real estate deal that will replace the quaint downtown with a massive supermarket? Will Joe be able to open his heart to Bertie, and vice versa? Will the intense prosecutor (Holly Hunter) put Diana's killer behind bars? Will JoJo get over her writer's block? Will Ben be able to get over his regrets about being a distant father?
Silberling deftly moves from scenario to scenario, but with the limitations of a two-hour running time he misses opportunities to really breathe life into the inhabitants of Moonlight Mile. Instead of using a big real estate deal to tell us that things will never be the same for Ben, he should have allowed Hoffman the space to express his confusion in a more human way. The man's an Oscar winner, for God's sake.
Maybe Hoffman's contract demands that he actually work in only one scene per film. He mostly sleepwalks through his performance dispensing a sleeping potion made from elements from two of his signature roles--the tics and repetitions of Rain Man with the broken desperation of Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. It's not until his final scene that he stretches his acting legs, conveying elements of hope, sadness, regret, and redemption as he says goodbye to Joe and closes up his real estate office.
Sarandon's performance, on the other hand, is Tesla-coil good. Sure, she benefits from having the best-written character in the film, but she devours her critical scenes as the voice of dissent in the family fantasy. Hers is the only truly honest performance in the film, exhibiting with natural ability the wide range of emotions the situations of Moonlight Mile allow her to explore.
Silberling's direction has its bright spots. While his filmmaking style fairly conventional, his peek into these people's lives feels natural and unobtrusive. Subdued lighting and canny art direction helps him capture the emotional constipation of late mid-century suburban idyll destroyed by random tragedy. In fact his only glaring mistake is the inclusion of an utterly useless subplot concerning the prosecution of Diana's killer, which gives Joe the opportunity to tell "the whole truth" about the situation he finds himself in.
Overall, if you're a fan of the sweet and sad ensemble drama this film will pay dividends. But there was potential for a much better film waiting in this material.
Moonlight's DVD is jam-packed with extras, including two commentaries (one from director Silberling, one from him, Hoffman, and Gyllenhaal), plus a ton of shortish deleted scenes, none of which you'll really miss from the finished film.
A dining table goes low.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 4th October 2002
Box Office USA: $6.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $10M
Distributed by: Touchstone Pictures
Production compaines: Punch Productions, Touchstone Pictures, Hyde Park Entertainment, Reveal Entertainment, Gran Via
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Fresh: 92 Rotten: 55
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Brad Silberling
Screenwriter: Brad Silberling
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal as Joe Nast, Dustin Hoffman as Ben Floss, Susan Sarandon as Jojo Floss, Aleksia Landeau as Cheryl, Ellen Pompeo as Bertie Knox, Richard Messing as Rabbi, Lev Friedman as Cantor, Bob Clendenin as Server #1 (as Robert Clendenin), Jim Fyfe as Server #2, Mary Ellen Trainor as Mrs. Meyerson, Richard Fancy as Mr. Meyerson, Marcia Mitzman Gaven as Fashion Plate, Holly Hunter as Mona Camp, Gordon Clapp as Tanner, Dabney Coleman as Mike Mulcahey, Colombe Jacobsen-Derstine as Patty
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