Message in a Bottle (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For anyone who wept hopelessly at the tragic romance of The English Patient, Message in a Bottle is the movie you have been waiting for. In addition to being a beautifully-photographed motion picture with a solid (albeit melodramatic) storyline and good acting, it's also Kevin Costner's bid to once again be taken seriously in the wake of several unfortunate career choices (capped off by the disastrous The Postman). Playing the lead in a "safe" movie like this (it is, after all, based on a bestselling novel) is a wise move on Costner's part, for, while Message in a Bottle will have limited appeal among males (it's a "chick flick"), women will appreciate the way the story touches their hearts and opens their tear ducts.

Weepy melodramas come in two categories: those that do a good job with their material and those that resort to unsubtle manipulation. Films in the former group develop sympathetic characters that an audience can relate to, while movies in the latter throw a bunch of cliched individuals up on screen, then shamelessly pluck at the viewer's heartstrings. Despite some problems with the ending (which goes for the quick emotional payoff rather than a more satisfying, but less tearful, one), Message in a Bottle deserves a place among the better pictures. It's about as enjoyable as a film with these intentions can be.

Message in a Bottle starts out with single mom Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn), leaving her young son, Jason (Jesse James), in the care of his father, with whom he's visiting for a few weeks. After that, she takes a stroll along a New England beach, where she finds a bottle with a message in it. The note is addressed to someone named Catherine, and appears to be a heartfelt letter of love and loss. The writer calls the woman his "true North," expresses how much she means to him, and laments her loss. Theresa is deeply touched, and, when she returns home to Chicago, she shows the missive to her friends and co-workers at the Tribune. The next day, the letter is printed in the paper, and the resulting reader response is overwhelming. Contained in the stacks of mail delivered to the Tribune are two other messages, both found in bottles, that appear to be from the same source. Using her investigative instincts, Theresa tracks down the writer, a North Carolina ship repairman named Garret Blake (Kevin Coster), and, without revealing her profession, she strikes up a friendship with him. It turns out that Garret is still grieving for his dead wife, Catherine, and his life has been an empty shell for the past two years. But, through his interaction with Theresa, he begins to shake off some of the cobwebs of loneliness and pain.

The movie's premise promises more than the rather standard grief-assuaged-by-new-love story that's ultimately delivered. The first half-hour of Message in a Bottle is engrossing because it appears to be going in a completely new direction. After that, things fall into familiar patterns. Once the initial 30 minutes are over, the best part of Message in a Bottle is the character interaction. While the romance between Theresa and Garret is nicely-developed, it's really the background individuals - Dodge (Paul Newman), Garret's cantankerous father; Charlie Toschi (Robby Coltrane), a Tribune columnist; and Lina (Illeana Douglas), Theresa's best friend - who make the proceedings worthwhile. Actually, there are times when these supporting characters are more interesting than the leads. I wouldn't have minded watching a whole film devoted to any of them.

Another source of pleasure is the dialogue, which is written with the intelligent viewer in mind. Some of the best lines are spoken by Robby Coltrane, a British comedian employing a plausible American accent. (His most memorable: when referring to Theresa's growing desire to meet the letter-writer, he remarks, "You're thinking Heathcliffe or Hamlet, and this guy's probably Captain Ahab.") The conversations between Theresa and Garret are filled with uncomfortable pauses, as one might expect from interaction between two people who are attracted to each other but don't have much in common. At one point, Garret remarks, "I'm wondering why you're here, because you don't know what to say, either."

Costner is not at his best, but he's much better than in The Postman. He plays his part with the right mix of charm and melancholy. However, while Costner may be subdued, there's nothing low-key about Robin Wright Penn, who gives the most engaging performance of her career. In the past, I thought of the actress as a pretty face with talent, but a tendency to come across as cold and distant. That appraisal was wiped away after five minutes with Theresa. Wright Penn is beguiling in this role, and her nearly constant on-screen presence makes the movie that much more enjoyable.

The director of Message in a Bottle is Luis Mandoki, whose resume lists titles like When a Man Loves a Woman and Born Yesterday. Working from a script by Gerald DiPego (based on Nicholas Sparks' novel), Mandoki has fashioned one of his most complete films to date. Credit both the actors and the material for making Message in a Bottle a worthwhile two hours. It's not a great film, but it succeeds in being both tender and cathartic, and, unlike Patch Adams and Stepmom, it isn't unbearably cloying in the process.

Message in a Bottle (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 1999-02-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1