movies: Character Flaw 

"Moonlight Mile" tries to capture the twin topics of grief and loss, but doesn't go the distance.

But there's another Benjamin Braddock figure here: young Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lost-looking fiancé of Ben and Jojo's murdered daughter, who wanders through the movie wondering what to do next. But sadly, Joe is an underwritten character who never quite clears the bar raised by the movie's excellent supporting cast. Despite a fine performance by Gyllenhaal, Joe remains a heavy-lidded young man with furrowed brow and dark circles under his eyes.

We can see the grieving Joe has secrets to reveal, he just can't quite figure out how. This is a tough task to place on the shoulders of a young actor, even one as talented as Gyllenhaal, giving him little to do but look like a forlorn puppy, sad and uncertain. And his quick infatuation with another young woman (Ellen Pompeo) a free spirit who's clearly been sent to help his imprisoned soul fly, is more than jarring: It feels phony, too quirky, too manipulated and too ... well, too much like a movie.

Formerly titled "Baby's in Black," the movie's new title refers to a song by the Rolling Stones, though it's not much of an improvement. The script for "Moonlight Mile" has been in development hell for years, and in fact is really a labor of love for writer/director Brad Silberling. Based on his relationship with TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was murdered by a stalker in 1989, "Moonlight Mile" seems like a movie that's at war with itself.

Although the movie's setting has been changed to the '70s and tells a very different story, Silberling is obviously treading on a very emotional and personal landscape. Some of the details are achingly poignant, clearly coming from memory rather than Silberling's imagination: well-meaning friends bearing sympathy and gifts; the aimless watching of television; the lonely sound of a train whistle piercing the somber stillness of night.

"Moonlight Mile" dearly wants to be a profound exploration of loss, about once again finding faith in life after tragedy. It's brave new territory for sure, but the true-to-life feel of its details contrasts too vividly with the too-precise scriptedness of the story. Too much feels fake here (the machine-made falling rain in one scene is obvious) and Joe's personal journey, neatly designed to fit into the movie's pre-fab confines, never touches the heart. Sadly, the result is that none of the scenes ever rise above ordinary, much like the way a microwave meal can't approach the savory delight of a home-cooked one.

"Moonlight Mile" seems hell-bent on giving us "quirkiness" rather than allowing the characters to breathe and develop. Silberling, though, does well by his actors (although it's shameful to see the likes of Holly Hunter with precious little to do). In particular, Hoffman and Sarandon, who've never worked together before, turn out to be an inspired pairing of equal talents. As a long-married couple, they're completely believable — even their voices seem similarly raspy; and their silent communication, right on the money. When Sarandon tells Gyllenhaal that within marriage "you find your home," the warmth of her voice makes us believe it, too.

Earnest with a capital E, "Moonlight Mile" has a powerful grasp on the glories of life, but it just can't go the distance. Perhaps Ben and Jojo should have been the focus of "Moonlight Mile," not young Joe. *** S


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