Director: Brad Silberling
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Ellen Pompeo, Holly Hunter
MPAA Rating: (for some sensuality and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 10/4/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
One of the hardest parts of losing someone is coming to terms with the fact that life does indeed continue without the person. When Brad Silberling’s Moonlight Mile really concentrates on this sad irony, it displays a strong emotional honesty, but when it ultimately comes down to it, this is not the story of people dealing with grief and loss. The melancholy is in the background, and we’re actually watching the story of a kid who wants to escape responsibility—to his family and his loss—and other people’s perceptions of him. Considering the given circumstances of the story, I’m left unconvinced that this would be at the front of his mind, or else if it is, he’s a rather selfish and ungrateful kid who puts his own needs before everyone else’s, even in such extreme and devastating circumstances as these. Yes, he’s trying to keep everyone happy and living a lie in the process (a combination certainly not suitable for a balanced psyche), but for most of the movie, he muses on the former and, in doing so, never tries to correct the latter. In focusing on him, Silberling has almost neutralized whatever impact the story of grief could have had, but fortunately, he’s assembled a strong cast and moments of genuine emotion that do make up for the movie’s central flaw.
Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just lost his fiancée when a man walked into a diner, shot, and killed her in a failed attempt to murder his wife (she’s in a coma). With the plans for and stability of their lives suddenly thrown into disorder, Joe and his fiancée’s parents Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Jo Floss (Susan Sarandon) now find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions are high, but no one is really saying why. Grief has stricken each of them in their own way. Joe continues to live in the house and act as a part of the family. Ben tries to be democratic to everyone’s needs, although it almost always means overlooking those of himself and his wife. Jo is more open with her feelings, although only to Joe and Ben. She bites her tongue when friends are around. Before the murder, Ben and Joe had planned to go into business together in Ben’s already established real estate firm, and now, Ben has decided to keep the plan in effect, much to Joe’s unspoken dissatisfaction. With so much going on, Ben needs Joe to retrieve the wedding invitations from the post office where he meets Bertie (Ellen Pompeo), who also just so happens to be part owner of a local bar that Ben’s agency needs to convince to sell to a planned shopping center.
Silberling has done quite a few things right with this movie. The atmosphere and look of the early 1970s is captured incredibly well, especially in the era-appropriate soundtrack. The infusion of humor into such a topically depressing subject feels natural. Silberling is also working from a real life inspiration in his relationship with television actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was murdered by an obsessed fan in 1989, so it adds a level of credibility to the range of emotions on screen. Where the movie starts to flounder is in many of its situations. Despite its inspiration from actual events, the screenplay feels formulaic and contrived in many key scenarios and setups. There’s the entire real estate subplot, which adds nothing but forced conflict between Joe and Ben and Bertie. The relationship between Joe and Bertie is also surprisingly lacking. They share loss, but the screenplay focuses so much on the bar subplot that Bertie seems more a source of conflict than redemption for Joe. Another subplot surrounding the murderer’s arraignment is unnecessary and again presents the cliché that a person on the stand will spill their heart and soul, despite regular court proceedings. Finally and most frustrating are the events around a secret Joe has kept about his relationship with the Floss’ daughter. Circumstances keep him from spilling the beans until it’s the most dramatically potent and, therefore, false.
The performances keep the script in balance. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the most promising new actors, which I can tell solely based on his performance in Donnie Darko, and here he manages to make Joe as sympathetic as possible, despite the basic flaws in the writing of his character. My problems with his character have nothing to do with the performance; in fact, Gyllenhaal displays an understanding of his character that simply emphasizes the mistake (good for him but bad for Silberling). Susan Sarandon is great, but unfortunately her character is sadly underwritten. Scenes with Jo are relatively few (compared to her male counterparts), but Sarandon makes the most of them. The character we find ourselves identifying with most is Ben. Dustin Hoffman gives a remarkable restrained, heart-wrenching performance. Quiet and always on-edge, Hoffman manages to constantly convey the repressed grief just bubbling below the surface. Take particular note of the scene in which he tries to recreate in his mind the events of his daughter’s murder at the diner in which it took place. Hoffman plays it cold and calculating, but we know what’s actually behind the display and that’s what makes it so sad.
In the quiet, reserved scenes, Moonlight Mile really works as a study of grief and remorse, but Silberling is more convicted in making a movie about moving on. That’s fine in its own right, but in attempting to quicken the end result, he sacrifices much of the emotional catharsis and employs far too many plot contrivances. I believe Silberling had the best intentions here, but he just doesn’t have the restraint to fully realize them.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.