Message in a Bottle Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

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What could be less interesting that two bland people falling in love, with only their state of mind being an impediment to their everlasting happiness? How about a movie about two bland people falling in love, with only their state of mind being an impediment to their everlasting happiness? That's the main problem with "Message in a Bottle", a subdued effort that lacks the requisite charm and passion necessary to create a memorable experience.

Robin Wright Penn

Based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, the story starts on a deserted New England beach, where Teresa Osborne (Robin Wright Penn of "Hurlyburly"), a divorced mother with a young son (Jesse James), is taking a stroll. During her stroll, she spies a glass bottle poking out of the wet loam. Picking up the odd artifact, she finds a typewritten note inside addressed to a woman named Catherine, whom the unknown writer deeply misses. Moved by the heartfelt and stirring words of love lost, Teresa shows the intriguing letter to her coworkers upon her return to the Chicago Tribune, where she works as a researcher.

Seeing the potential for a great human interest story, Teresa's editor (Robby Coltrane) decides to run the letter as a front page item. Not surprisingly, the letter's publication generates an overwhelming response from Tribune readers, who send hundreds of pieces of fan mail in support. While wading through the reams of mail with her best friend Lina (Ileanna Douglas of "Picture Perfect"), a couple of letters pique their interest-- letters from individuals who found two similar letters stuffed in glass bottles.

You're thinking Heathcliffe or Hamlet... and this guy's probably Captain Ahab.

Kevin Costner

Marshalling her research resources together, Teresa tracks down the originator of the mysterious messages-- an unassuming shipwright from North Carolina named Garret Blake (Kevin Costner of "The Postman"), who lost his wife Catherine two years prior. Desperately wanting to better know the man behind passionate letters, Teresa hops onto the next plane and finds herself in the peaceful and idyllic seaside village where Garret calls home. Pretending to be a tourist, Teresa strikes up a fast friendship with the grieving shipwright, in search of material that she can use for writing a follow-up piece. However, Teresa gets more than she bargained for when she falls under Garret's spell as she comes to understand the man and his unforgettable loss. Unfortunately, as the relationship between Teresa and Garret deepens, so does the risk of Teresa's true motives being revealed, which may further exacerbate Garret's long-running grief.

I'm wondering why you're here, because you don't know what to say either.

While "Message in a Bottle" certainly aspires to be one of those sweeping romances, it falls short of that lofty target, leaving a somewhat muted feeling after the lights in the theater come back up. While the film is certainly awash in spectacle, with many panoramic vistas of the eastern seaboard gracing the screen, the core of the story, the romance between Garret and Teresa, lacks emotional resonance. Unfortunately, the two romantic leads are not written to be terribly interesting, and the laggard interactions between Penn and Costner have a surprising lack of on-screen chemistry. And while both actors capably handle the demands of their under-written parts, their performances are not that memorable.

Will you come and visit me?
You mean inland?

Costner and Penn

Another shortfall of the film is that there is no sense of urgency to the proceedings. While the issue of Teresa publishing the letters in the Tribune eventually becomes a source of contention in the relationship, it is not a major source of complications-- in fact, the scene in which Garret inevitably finds out the truth comes across as overly-melodramatic and his reaction borders on implausibility. Had Teresa gone to find Garret with a story deadline hanging over her head, and if the letters had made Garret a national celebrity assuring him a thorough hounding by the popular press, then the stakes of the relationship and its consequences would have been higher. Consequently, the dynamics of the relationship would have been more interesting, and the struggle to keep the relationship alive would have been worth fighting. Unfortunately, as is, Garret and Teresa only have to 'make up their minds' in order for the relationship to thrive, which is not a terribly earth-shattering achievement.

If I was about a hundred and fifty years younger, you'd be in trouble, young lady.

About the only spark of life in this bloated and weepy-eyed melodrama is Paul Newman, who plays Garret's cantankerous father, Dodge. Newman manages to steal every scene he is in with his engaging character and snappy one-liners, and without his presence, the film would have been even more wearisome. Coming out of the theater, I was wishing that Dodge had been the object of Teresa's affections-- what a more interesting movie that would have been.

If you're looking for an old-fashioned romance with two beautiful but bland people, you might find "Message in a Bottle" adequate. Other than some nice scenery and some interesting character bits from the supporting actors, "Message in a Bottle" is an overly-long and emotionally-manipulative piece of fluff. Now, if you are looking for a good reason to cry, this film will fit the bill-- with tears of disappointment.

Images courtesy of Warner Brothers. All rights reserved.

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