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MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

by: Michael Dequina

I am a sucker for a shamelessly romantic confection, and the swoony trailer for Luis Mandoki's adaptation of Nicholas Sparks's bestseller Message in a Bottle promised the tear-stained goods. A woman finds the titular item and is so touched by the letter that she seeks out the letter writer--and finds him. Along the way, we hear such wonderfully saccharine lines as, "Don't you think it's brave--to love like that in this world?", "Choose between yesterday and tomorrow," and, most memorably, "You were my true north."

But as Message dashed headlong into its tear-wringing final frames, the audience at the screening I attended was noticeably dry-eyed and -nosed, with very few audible sniffles. And it's understandable why, for I certainly was not one of those few. I don't mind a formulaic film if the film goes about the formula in an interesting way, or the story is strong enough to sweep me away, formula be damned. Message does neither. It is a rather conventional and conventionally told tale where a lonely woman (here, Chicago newspaper researcher/divorced single mom Theresa Osborne, played by Robin Wright Penn) finds a kindred spirit in another lonely soul (North Carolina widower Garret Blake, played by Kevin Costner, the author of the message), but his devotion to a lost love (dead wife Catherine) keeps him from committing.

There is nothing wrong with that story in and of itself, and Costner and the radiant Wright Penn are a natural screen pair. But director Luis Mandoki and scripter Gerald DiPego wrap it in too much formula. Theresa and Garret fall for each other, but there's a Big Secret that threatens the future of their relationship, the revelation of which naturally comes at the pinnacle of their happiness (read: after they first make love). (The Big Secret in question, of course, is that Theresa found Garret's bottle and sought him out.) But even way before the story gets to that point, there are other irksome cliches, in particular Theresa getting an early wrong impression Garret after spying him in a brawl with his former brother-in-law. Speaking of in-laws, too much time is spent on a pointless subplot involving Garret's strained relationship with them. As if that weren't damaging enough as it is, the thread is resolved in an overblown, wordless, melodramatically-scored scene that borders on the laughable.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Message in a Bottle is that it really could have turned out to be something. The story has a proven hook, and the casting is dead-on. Wright Penn is captivating and likable; Costner's typical stiffness is compensated by his rapport with his female lead; and they are well-supported by Illeana Douglas (as Theresa's best friend/co-worker), Robbie Coltrane (as Theresa's boss), and, in a scene-stealing turn, Paul Newman (as Garret's father). But these individual elements are just that, elements, floating in a large, overly familiar sea.

RATING: *** (out of *****)

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