Director: Brad Silberling. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Susan Sarandon, Dustin Hoffman, Ellen Pompeo, Dabney Coleman, Holly Hunter, Aleksia Landeau, Allan Corduner, Gordon Clapp. Screenplay: Brad Silberling.
Cameron Crowe did not write or direct Moonlight Mile, but he may as well have, since the movie feels and looks and most of all sounds like his work. From my point of view, this is not a compliment, and I can only hope that the cool reception that has greeted Moonlight Mile, like the popular underperformance of Crowe's Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky will stop prompting so much critical hand-wringing about why these films don't fare better commercially and start promoting some skepticism about how well these pictures actually pull their aesthetic weight.
What's with reviewers' double standards, anyway? When Nora Ephron, for example, grabs a likable cast, rolls them through the old grooves of familiar plots, and bathes the whole package in a soundtrack of muzaky "standards," tastemakers cry foul. All that seems to change, though, in the transition from an Ephron to the widely-lauded Cameron Crowe or, in this case, the warmly indulged Brad Silberling is that the narrative clichés favor romantic melancholy over romantic comedy, and the music cues are culled from a deeper archival knowledge of decades of rock 'n' roll. It is as though Crowe's or Silberling's "discerning" choice of songs is expected to make the movies surrounding them (if not submerged beneath them) seem more discerning than their desultory plotting and ungiving character types substantiate. When a performer like Frances McDormand can crack through the vinyl veneer of a picture like Almost Famous, it is hardly because the screenwriting or directing have done her any favors. Vanilla Sky proceeded as though every other scene were an excuse for trotting out a single from the dustier trays of the jukebox, and Silberling's Moonlight Mileeven the titles sound like siblingsoften seems guided by the same principle. Admittedly, Silberling's music cues serve more than one purpose, as mood amplification, punchline, character motif, and ironic counterpoint, but we might ask in any case, should these scenes ever feel so motivated by their ambient audio, rather than the other way around?
There's a story struggling to get out of the sonic wash and Massachusetts-at-sunset burnish that writer-director Silberling has so liberally applied. And speaking of ironic counterpoint, that story is supposed to be about the hard work of resisting the forward drag and epiphenomena of daily life (like pop music and sunsets, for example) in order to remember a departed person who meant something to you. For Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), these elegies are for their daughter Diana, whom they have lost in an unmotivated murder right across the street from Ben's office. Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal), engaged to Diana at the time of her death, is confronted in some sense with an even tougher task: not just preserving Diana in his memory, but reconciling exactly what she meant to him when she was alive. Halfway through the film, we learn that his qualms about their impending union had already led to the wedding's cancellation, though Ben and JoJo hadn't been told yet.
It is an intriguing and almost risky proposition to install the inchoate grief of a withdrawn, inarticulate ex-fiancé, rather than the profounder mourning of two middle-aged (and Oscar-winning) parents, as the emotional motor of the movie. Even more to the movie's credit are its subtle interrogations into that very assumption that parental grief is purer and less ambivalent than some other variety. JoJo in particular, in Sarandon's sharp performance, is a more intriguing figure than either of the In the Bedroom protagonists, because she confesses emotional facts about intimate loss that movies have rarely divulged. JoJo just doesn't feel like grieving; the loss of her daughter is unbearable, but so is the banality of every conversation in which a friend or neighbor attempts to address it, or the relentlessness with which her husband accedes to each of these maladroit gestures and conversations. She doesn't get angry with Ben, she gets annoyed, and without making the character too harsh or upsetting the balance of the story, Sarandon's tart embodiment of an interestingly written character yields the movie's richest scenes.
Indeed, Sarandon deserved even more narrative space if Silberling didn't have anything better to compete with her than a tentative romance between Joe, still living with his would-be in-laws, and Bertie Knox (Ellen Pompeo), a daffy blonde mail carrier with her own history of loss. There's nothing particularly offensive about the storyline or the actors' delivery of it except that supplying Joe with a new love interest seems like an incredibly automatic and needless response to the dramatic predicament of losing his fiancée, ex- though she may have been. To an extent, Joe's attraction to Bertie seems to clarify to him that Diana's allure was not equivalent; his dispassionate alertness to the denial and cowardice Bertie permits herself in her sorrow also helps him detect those mechanisms in himself. But these are hoary truisms of the bereavement subgenre, and they both prioritize the educational value of Bertie over the loss of Diana, which starts to feel uncomfortably like a narrative device rather than a genuine emotional toll. Joe eventually winds up testifying in the trial of Diana's killer, and Gyllenhaal does a nice job with his monologue about recovering Diana as she was and not as her survivorsto include the opportunistic court systemwill reconstitute her. But again, the power of the scene largely derives from the fact that only now is Diana, in a film ostensibly about the effects of her death, finally at the center of a scene.
Editor Lisa Zeno Churgin keeps the scenes moving along with metronomic regularity, as she did in The Cider House Rules, another New Englander drama that furnished the tasteful facsimile of human drama in place of a plausibly organic reflection of the messy issuesdeath, anger, jealousy, childbearing and childlessnessthat found so much lip service in the script. And then there are those rustic snapshots and those incessant songs. Since we're given no reason to believe that either Diana or her intimate sphere have a predilection for classic rock, every album track Silberling gets his hands on reliably shucks us right out of the movie just when we expect to be drawn in. The mourners in Moonlight Mile may have a hard time getting to the heart of their loss, but even they do better than Silberling does at getting to the heart of his own movie. C