Moonlight Mile (United States, 2002)
When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight Mile, it raised a few red flags, but I was at least comforted by the realization that Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon, the film's stars, are usually reasonably choosy about the roles they tackle. In making that assessment, I temporarily forgot Sphere and Stepmom. Had I recalled these, it would have occurred to me that Hoffman and Sarandon are fallible when it comes to choosing their roles, and the sheer agony of sitting through Moonlight Mile would not have come as such a shock.
Moonlight Mile is the product of writer/director Brad Silberling, who has based some of the movie on his own experiences with grief. In 1989, Silberling's then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer ("My Sister Sam"), was murdered outside of her Hollywood home by a deranged fan. According to Silberling, when devising the screenplay for Moonlight Mile, he drew from aspects of what he and others close to Schaeffer endured in the wake of her death. It's too bad more of the gut-wrenching pain of this kind of loss didn't make it to the screen. Instead, all that's there is a choking, cloying sense of artifice.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Joe Nast, the fiance of Diana Floss, who was an innocent victim at a diner shooting. Joe, currently living with Diana's parents, Ben (Hoffman) and JoJo (Sarandon), finds himself trapped by the Floss' expectations. They see him as the only link to their lost daughter, and are desperate not to "lose" him. No one is handling the tragedy in a "normal" manner - there are no tears, and the internalized grief is manifesting itself in different ways. Joe is becoming increasingly panicked as he finds himself trapped. Ben tries to keep busy and not to think about what happened. And JoJo faces a severe case of writer's block. In the end, an emotional dam has to break, and the catalyst for the eruption is the appearance of a local postal worker, Birdie (Ellen Pompeo), who offers Joe a possible escape.
There are many things wrong with Moonlight Mile, but the most persistent is bad writing. This is an insultingly inept and artificial examination of grief and its impacts upon the relationships of the survivors. It uses facile keys to show recovery. (Hoffman's Ben compulsively answers the phone, regardless of when it rings or what he's doing at the time. We know he's better when he can let it ring without picking up.) Not one moment of Moonlight Mile feels genuine - it's all pre-packaged and "Disney-fied", and, as a consequence, stays away from the emotional core that the similarly-themed In the Bedroom so effectively tapped. Where the 2001 movie caused tears to well up in my eyes, this movie left me cold and unmoved, even though its manipulation is relentless.
The characters are supposed to be repressing their grief, but it isn't convincing. The problem isn't the acting - Hoffman, Sarandon, Gyllenhaal, and the delightful Pompeo are all solid - it's Silberling's work with the pen and behind the camera. I never once believed I was in the presence of real grief (the kind that sears the soul and burns the heart), just a Hollywood-generated masquerade. Moonlight Mile is an insult to anyone who has tragically and unexpectedly lost a loved-one in a similar manner. Given his background, I'm sure that's not what Silberling intended, but that's what he ended up with.
Moonlight Mile (United States, 2002)
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, Ellen Pompeo, Dabney Coleman
Screenplay: Brad Silberling
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures