Moonlight Mile Movie Review
Finding warmth, humor and uneasy comfort in the face of senseless tragedy, "Moonlight Mile" is a poignant movie about pain and loss that doesn't succumb to melodrama and cry-you-a-river, give-me-an-Oscar performances.
Described as "emotionally autobiographical" by writer-director Brad Silberling ("City of Angels") -- whose actress girlfriend was killed by a stalker in 1989 -- the film is about the apprehensive bond that forms between a young man and the parents of his fiancée, who is murdered in a diner just a few weeks before their wedding.
The story, which takes place in 1970s New England (gratuitous soundtrack warning), opens the morning of the funeral as fresh-from-college Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the childhood bedroom of his late bride-to-be and begins packing his suitcase. He's planned to leave that night, although he's not sure where he's going. But after the service, he spends the evening with her downhearted, acquiescent and ironic parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), who have resolved simply to go on with life as planned -- just as soon as Sarandon, fed up with a day of public grieving, tosses into the fireplace all the silly self-help books ("These Things Happen," "Grieving for Grown-Ups") given to them by concerned friends trying awkwardly to help.
Such unexpected moments of authentically impulsive humor are the hallmark of this bittersweet, uncommonly sincere movie that portrays the frank humanity of this quasi-family's emotional recovery.
For Ben Floss (Hoffman), that means changing the shingle on his small-town real estate storefront to read Floss & Son, still assuming Joe will become his partner. JoJo (Sarandon) clings to her tart wit while battling writer's block (she's working on a book) induced by her daughter's death and possibly aggravated by the nagging feeling that something was amiss between the young couple before the tragic shooting.
Soon finding himself in a quandary of love and loyalty, Joe's emotional and directional limbo is further complicated when he goes to the town's tiny post office hoping to retrieve the couple's just-mailed wedding invitations -- and becomes unexpectedly attracted to cute, tenacious, charismatic postal clerk Bertie Knox (newcomer Ellen Pompeo).
While their friendship is tentative and unfolds at a natural and respectable pace, one of Silberling's few missteps in "Moonlight Mile" was casting an actress so charismatic and comely (Pompeo is like a steelier Renee Zellweger) that it's immediately obvious she couldn't be anything but a love interest. Not that I blame the director for hiring Pompeo -- she just pops off the screen with a natural, substantive, sweetly enticing performance.
But this relationship is not cheap Hollywood shorthand for depicting a successful healing process. Joe's reasons for being ready to move on are far more complex than the film lets on at first, and Bertie has her own psychological roadblocks to love. She's been waiting three years for news of a sweetheart who's been MIA in the Vietnam War.
Gyllenhaal ("The Good Girl," "Donnie Darko") gives a thoughtful, candid performance that subtly but deliberately allows you to project yourself into Joe's perplexed position and feel like you're another person in this makeshift family. As the cynical but wise and perceptive Jojo, Sarandon gives her third great -- and very different -- comedy-drama performance as a troubled mom this year (see "The Banger Sisters" and especially "Igby Goes Down"). And Hoffman taps beautifully into how Ben's compulsive personality is aggravated by his daughter's death. Together with Sarandon they form a very realistic couple who survive mutual frustration through mutual devotion and good humor.
The emotional territory "Moonlight Mile" traverses has been well traveled in movies like "Ordinary People" and last year's "In the Bedroom" -- and its characters seem a little too well adjusted a lot of the time. "Screw the verdict, whatever it is. I'm back in action," says Hoffman after a meeting with the district attorney (Holly Hunter in a small role) who is prosecuting his daughter's killer.
But the differences here are smart and significant -- and not just because of its tricky but consistent sense of jocularity. This movie does not follow the trial. It does not depict poignant breakdowns or wrenching outrage. It's more subtle and corporeal and three-dimensional than that. Its abundant, intricate, affectionate, true-to-life details slip right past your conscious and into your gut.
Silberling and his cast don't dress up the film's poignancy in overwrought acting. They strip it down and find each character's undiluted core. It's not a movie about catharsis -- even if it does feel as if it were written by someone who has had a lot of therapy.