I'm not an overly cynical guy. There have been many glossy Hollywood romances
that have carried me away with their romanticism over the years. However, I
have my limits and I also have standards. This brings us to the subject at
hand: Message In a Bottle, the big ticket romance that Warner Brothers'
unleashed upon the movie going public just in time for Valentine's Day.
The story, what little of it that there is, involves boring Chicago Tribune
reporter Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright-Penn) dealing with her recent divorce
and trying to raise her young son Jason (Jesse James). During a brief stay
somewhere in New England she finds the titular message in a bottle while on a
morning run by the ocean. The letter, written to a mystery woman named
Catherine, instantly captivates her. Upon her return, Theresa shares it with
her best friend Lina (Illeana Douglas), her boss Charlie (Robbie Coltrane),
and the entire city of Chicago (the newspaper publishes an article about it).
It turns out that the message was written by grieving widower Garret Blake
(Kevin Costner) and so Theresa travels to North Carolina and tracks him down.
He turns out to have a colorful father (Paul Newman) but is otherwise
perfectly dull and overly obsessed with sailing. This is somehow attractive
to Theresa and the two begin their awkward courtship. Of course she doesn't
tell him that she found his letter, she wants to but the rules of this type of
film require him to find out later (preferably right after they first make
love). This way Garret can get very angry and the relationship can be
The discovery of the message and Garret's discovery that Theresa discovered
the message are really the only two noteworthy events that happen during the
nearly two and a quarter hour running time of this film. There's a truly lame
subplot about Garret's relationship with his dead wife's family (he gets into
a bar fight with her brother, played by John Savage) and then the necessary
tear-jerking ending. A fun way to pass the time is to take bets on exactly
who will die, although it becomes pretty clear by the second reel. The actual
death sequence is one of the most ridiculously forced, and unintentionally
humorous, sequences filmed since... well, since Costner's The Postman (1997).
Message In a Bottle is one slow moving film. Last year audiences were offered
endurance tests such as The Horse Whisperer and Meet Joe Black but both of
those films resemble Jerry Bruckheimer productions next to this. They also
had redeeming qualities in the form of quality performances and some stand out
Message In a Bottle has a decent enough cast but they're fighting the material
all the way, and losing badly. Costner and, especially, Wright-Penn are both
likable and attractive enough to cheer for but their characters are simply too
boring. They also fail to generate any kind of real romantic chemistry.
The supporting players are given very little to do. The reliable Douglas is
particularly wasted. Old pro Newman gives his all and occasionally threatens
to kick some life into this dead horse of a film. A confrontational scene he
has with Costner near the end is especially well played. However, too
frequently he just reminds us how unexciting our lead characters are.
The film is very polished on the technical side to be sure but it only works
to undercut the story. Gabriel Yared, who previously set the romantic moods
of The English Patient (1996) and City of Angels (1998) with his scores,
overdoes it a bit here. Caleb Deschanel's camera makes everything look a
little too beautiful. Do the offices of the Chicago Tribune really need to
look heavenly? The editing by Steven Weisberg is troubling not only
considering all that could have been cut out but is also simply messy at
The real offender here is screenwriter Gerald Di Pego. Working from a best-
selling novel by Nicholas Sparks (which I have not read but have been told is
on the same literary level as The Bridges of Madison County), Di Pego creates
one of the most uninspired scripts of recent times. Its strict adherence to
clichés brings to mind such disasters as I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
(1998). There simply isn't an original scene in this film. The dialogue is
rarely better than laughable and this is only accentuated by the excessively
long pauses every character takes while speaking.
This is director Mandoki's first film since When a Man Loves a Woman (1994),
the solid Meg Ryan/Andy Garcia romance. He's simply going through the motions
Message In a Bottle is easily the worst of the several romantic offerings
available in theaters at the moment and vies with What Dreams May Come (1998)
as one of the most misguided romances of the decade.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman