Re-Views: 'Moonlight Mile' (2002)

One of the hardest things for a filmmaker to convey is sincerity. Even if you earnestly believe in what your movie is about, by the time it goes through the process of casting, filming, and editing -- unless you have total control over all those things -- your vision is liable to be compromised. For truly personal expressions, there's less risk in writing a book or a song, something that doesn't require assistance and input from dozens of other people, many of whom are only interested in profitability.

When a movie does succeed at expressing a filmmaker's innermost feelings, it's almost miraculous. Yet even then, not every viewer is going to feel the same way. I loved Brad Silberling's "Moonlight Mile," a 2002 drama about a young man's relationship with the parents of his recently murdered fiancee. Silberling based it loosely on his own experiences: he'd been dating the actress Rebecca Schaeffer when she was killed by an obsessive fan in 1989. To me, his personal connection to grief and loss came across in the film. But for many critics, it didn't work at all. While my glowing review did have some company, the overall consensus was lukewarm: Metacritic has the average score at 59 out of 100. It failed at the box office, making just $10 million worldwide, and fell off the radar.

All of this makes "Moonlight Mile" a prime candidate for the Re-Views column. How will a second viewing a decade later change my opinion? Or will it change at all?? You're probably feeling a lot of suspense and excitement now, so just stay calm.

What I said then: "You need only observe the brief moment when a dog vomits during a wake to understand that 'Moonlight Mile,' while preoccupied with the aftermath of a tragic death, is not going to be unreasonably melancholy.... The film is touching and thoughtful, but also extremely funny.... Twenty-two-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal continues to establish himself as one of his generation’s best actors with his heartbreakingly sympathetic performance as Joe. The suddenness with which he can go from passivity to great emotion is startling; it perfectly mirrors the real-life roller coaster of the grieving process.... Susan Sarandon is worthy of an Oscar nomination.... She is splendidly vulnerable, as is [Dustin] Hoffman, who is such a brilliant, diverse actor that things like this look easy when he does them. [Writer-director Brad] Silberling has found that the most effective way to help an audience feel something is not to beat them over the head with it. At its heart, this is every bit as melancholy and sad as its subject matter suggests, but Silberling’s style allows for humor and hope, joy and optimism. In the end, we feel we’ve been on the same search for meaning that Joe has, and that the journey has enriched us the way it has him." Grade: A- [Here's the whole review.]

(Pet peeve: saying that someone's acting is worthy of Oscar consideration. It gives the impression that you consider awards to be the ultimate validator. I don't believe that, and I didn't then. This was just a lazy way of saying that Sarandon is excellent, and that the people who compile lists of excellent things would do well to keep her in mind.)

The re-viewing: I still like the details that can only have come from someone who has dealt firsthand with death (which, admittedly, is a large section of the population). Sarandon's character vents frustration over well-meaning friends' reactions to her daughter's death, and even acknowledges that yes, she's impossible to please: she's annoyed when they say something, and she's annoyed when they don't. She's allowed to be that way because her daughter just died, for crying out loud. The authenticity of the screenplay is unmistakable.

I stand by what I said about the performances, too. Sarandon and Hoffman were old pros, and they delivered the level of quality you expect from them. If "Moonlight Mile" had gotten more attention in general, I really do think Sarandon's performance might have been nominated for awards. Gyllenhaal only had a few major roles under his belt at this point, but all of them (yes, even "Bubble Boy") suggested he had promise. His emotional scenes here are the kind that actors put on their highlight reels: solid, professional work demonstrating facility with the fundamentals of acting and genuine talent.

But I'm more troubled on second viewing by two major elements that only seem to have bothered me slightly the first time. Here's a paragraph from my 2002 review:

"Joe's dilemma over whether to help his would-be father-in-law put the bar out of business is a disappointingly conventional plot device for a film that is otherwise so fresh. Ditto a courtroom scene near the end: Beware of courtroom scenes in movies that are not, overall, court-centered movies. It's a screenwriter's lazy way of forcing his characters to say what's on their minds, under oath, in a neat, tidy little speech."

I'd forgotten about the courtroom scene until I got to that part of the movie, whereupon I remembered it and groaned audibly. The first time around, the emotional force of the movie as a whole was enough to make me overlook those story-related mediocrities. This time, not so much. This time, I related to what critic Kenneth Turan wrote about the film:

"What's on screen is too honest and from the heart to totally dismiss but too slick and contrived to completely embrace. This is a film that cares about genuine emotion but also wants to tame it, to tidy it up and keep it confined to quarters."

Yes. That's exactly it. A few critics, including the estimable James Berardinelli, flat-out hated the movie, didn't find an authentic moment in the whole thing. That's crazy talk, if you ask me. But the more common sentiment was what Turan described: admiration for the truthful elements, but qualms over the more contrived ones. This second viewing has brought me around to that point of view. Now the real healing can begin. (Or something.)

Do I still love this movie? "Love" has been downgraded to "like," but my feelings are still positive overall. If you can put aside the plot devices that ring false, you'll find three sharp, sympathetic lead performances and a lot of heart, with very little saccharine. The relationship between Gyllenhaal and Sarandon as his almost-mother-in-law is particularly satisfying. I take comfort in the movie's gentle messages, tidy though they are, about how we try to be what our loved ones need us to be. It's good stuff. Grade: B