- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

"Moonlight Mile," a title derived from a Rolling Stones soundtrack number meant to evoke the early 1970s, illustrates the numbing rather than consoling Hollywood tear-jerker. Although presumably motivated by an authentic tragedy in his own life the murder of the young actress Rebecca Schaeffer, his fiancee at the time writer-director Brad Silberling contrives to dull the impact of a sudden and seemingly unbearable loss.

Several distancing and avoidance mechanisms conspire to trivialize the fictionalized, blunted and stagnating sorrows of "Moonlight Mile." Mr. Silberling elects a time frame when he happened to be a kid rather than a suitor and aspiring filmmaker.

His alter ego, Jake Gyllenhaal as an insufferably callow and evasive young man named Joe Nast, is supposed to be 22; he might as well be half that age, considering his inability to comprehend the aftermath of a family calamity or his own obligations to the bereft parents and acquaintances of his victimized girlfriend, named Diana Floss.

The movie doesn't depict Diana's killing. It has occurred in her hometown, a Massachusetts seacoast community called Cape Anne, doubled more often than not by Gloucester and Marblehead. The murder site was a restaurant across the street from her father Ben's realty office. It was a grisly accident. Diana was hit by a stray shot from an assailant aiming at his estranged wife, a waitress. Although gravely injured, the intended victim survived. Diana perished, a matter of weeks before her wedding.

Joe remains after the funeral, residing with Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon) and even acquiescing with Ben's scheme to make him a junior partner. He also becomes attracted to a flirtatious kook named Bertie (which registers phonetically as Birdie throughout the movie), who works at both the post office and a tavern, Cal's Place.

She has been carrying a torch for a boyfriend missing in Vietnam for three years and seems eager to hasten Joe's re-entry into heavy dating. As embodied by Ellen Pompeo, she also appears to be struggling to channel Shirley MacLaine and Renee Zellweger simultaneously.

Eventually, when the case comes to trial and the prosecutor (Holly Hunter, favoring a long, blond hairstyle for the occasion) counts on Joe to evoke the loveliness that was Diana, he proves unequal to the task. Instead, he blubbers out a confession of their concealed estrangement and pending breakup that supposedly clears the air of sanctimonious and grieving hypocrisy. JoJo describes it, favorably, as a "big truth enema." I'm not sure about the truth. Big unsolicited enema would be the safer metaphor.

Anyway, it's an ordeal to isolate anything that resembles heartfelt sincerity or regret in the sleepwalking torpor of "Moonlight Mile." JoJo and Ben never improve beyond caricatures of the sarcastic scold and the pathetic fussbudget, respectively. It's also vaguely annoying that Mr. Hoffman should retain the first name of his character in "The Graduate" because Joe seems to labor under the burden of too many resemblances to that feckless, self-pitying Benjamin of 1967.

Despite the small-town setting, you're never convinced that a sense of familiarity exists anywhere, even in places that presumably are hangouts stocked with regulars, such as Cal's Place. Mr. Silberling isn't up to the standard of "Sweet Home Alabama" in this respect because the characters attributed to Pigeon Creek, Ala., did seem to know one another.

There's so much drift and slack in "Moonlight Mile" that the continuity might make more sense if interpreted as a persistent zombie nightmare. The best single image, in fact, is a dream evocation, an elegant trick shot of Mr. Gyllenhaal walking on water. After that, it's all a rude awakening with paltry sentimental consolation.

One of the problems is that Mr. Gyllenhaal himself is becoming a monotonous fixture of movies that revolve around young men. He has exhausted quite a few variants, from "October Sky" to "Bubble Boy" to "Donnie Darko" to "Lovely & Amazing" to "The Good Girl." Joe Nast doesn't emerge as a fresh and fascinating example of a fundamentally weak and alienating boy who needs some form of adoption. Indeed, the ultimate stroke of unwitting cruelty in the movie seems to be the hint that Joe might stick around and try to make himself indispensable.

Please, Joe, say it ain't so.


* 1/2

TITLE: "Moonlight Mile"

RATING: PG-13 (Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy; fleeting profanity and sexual candor; elements of morbid humor; graphic allusions to a murder case)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Brad Silberling.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

MAXIMUM STAR RATING: FOUR STARS

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