directed by Brad Silberling
opens Oct. 4 at Guild 45, Pacific Place, and others
There's no better indicator of Hollywood's autumnal turn toward The Serious than mortality at the box office. And you might expect Brad Silberling's Moonlight Mile to take a weepy, maudlin approach to the subject, since the movie is loosely based on the aftermath of the 1989 murder of his girlfriend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, by a deranged fan, when Silberling bonded with her parents. But the refreshingly clich魡verse Mile—a bereavement comedy, I'd call it—suggests not all their time was spent on hugs and tears.
Instead, in the Floss family, Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and JoJo (Susan Sarandon), are too busy feeding and dissing uninvited mourners to tear their hair with grief. It's 1973, the dawning of the self-help book era, and JoJo, a writer, is being plied with manuals on loss and coping. Her response? Toss them in the fire. At the wake following their only child Diana's burial, even the Floss' dog seems disgusted by the outpouring of sympathy, puking on the most fulsome guest's shoes.
Feeling no less queasy is the dead girl's fianc鬠Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had taken up residence in the Floss household before the impending marriage. (He sleeps in Diana's old room, with her Bread posters and girlhood talismans.) Now his crisp wedding suit is used for a different kind of ceremony. Looking around him at the funeral, Joe uneasily surveys those who would've been his prospective relatives; strangers to him they will remain. Here, for the first time after The Good Girl, Lovely & Amazing, and Donnie Darko, those famously doleful Gyllenhaal eyes are put to their intended purpose: looking utterly sad and forlorn.
In this fictionalized account, Diana was a bystander randomly killed in a restaurant shooting; now Joe's stuck in this scenic coastal Massachusetts town until the perp is tried. (An expert in making small roles count large, Holly Hunter plays the sympathetic, no-nonsense prosecutor; why can't John Grisham write a legal thriller for her?) During this time, Joe is peppered with "What are you going to do now?" questions ࠬa The Graduate. That he should be lured into real-estate development by Ben—as in Benjamin Braddock—is only one of Mile's nicely underplayed ironies. Another, Joe's great secret that he tries to conceal from Ben and JoJo, shifts the entire movie's focus from past to future.
IN OTHER WORDS, Diana is dead to Joe, while the town's sexy hippie-chick postmistress, Bertie, is very much alive. Silberling isn't exactly subtle about writing and lighting this idealized golden ingenue (Ellen Pompeo); any man would fall for her, and Joe does just that when she helps him retrieve his wedding invitations from the mail. Yet as he confides in the similarly bereaved Bertie (her boyfriend has been M.I.A. in Vietnam for three years), their growing bond threatens his affectionate relationship with the Flosses, who still see him as Diana's boyfriend.
A forever bickering pair of long-married Jews, JoJo and Ben are Mile's most thoroughly realized characters, owing equally to first-rate acting and their real-life inspirations (which surely helped Silberling's specificity as a writer). Hoffman makes Ben an anal, outwardly cheerful repression case who channels everything into work (including, unthinkingly, a mall that will destroy his small town's loveliness). Sarandon's JoJo wears the fretful look of a woman one drink or cigarette away from a bender. She has no time for false sentiment or sweetness—as when she despairs that mealymouthed well-wishers are driving away her memory of her daughter's bad qualities!
Gyllenhaal, as hero, has the more passive, unshowy part, but I can't think of anyone playing it better. His voice seems to be on the verge of breaking for Mile's entire length. (Meanwhile, underwritten Bertie just waits for her man in a candlelit bath, presumably succored by the period rock ballads, including the Stones' titular track, that Mile lays on like greasepaint in the end.) Joe must finally testify in a courtroom d鮯uement that tries too hard to please all parties, living and dead. "I don't want to be here," he pleads, but in his stammering you hear an entire baby-boomer generation's complaint. The young can no longer live according to their parents' rules and expectations, yet the 39-year-old Silberling shrewdly puts Mile's final word of rebellion in Ben's sage mouth.
Generally skirting mawkishness, the imperfect but surprisingly affecting Mile ultimately reminded me of another rare example of major-studio humanism: James L. Brooks' 1983 Terms of Endearment (which also, not uncoincidentally, dealt with death). It's a bit of a shock to realize that for all the family-centered pictures Hollywood churns out each decade, it still occasionally gets one right.