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Cryin' Shame

Too sweet tears turn Message into mush

Short of nuclear holocaust, a major sale at Kmart or a confirmed Clint Eastwood sighting back in rural Iowa, there's probably no way to keep the movie version of Message in a Bottle from overwhelming the tender emotions of the hearts-and-flowers crowd. After all, this relentless assault on the tear ducts features (1) Kevin Costner as a manly (but sensitive) North Carolina boat builder who can't let go of his dead wife; (2) Robin Wright Penn as the wary (but sensitive) Chicago newspaperwoman who falls in love with him anyway and (3) Paul Newman as the grieving widower's crusty (but sensitive) father.

Don't plunk down your seven bucks expecting to see Casablanca or The English Patient. Instead, Message in a Bottle is a standard two-hanky weeper, photographed (by Caleb Deschanel) as softly and sweetly as a TV spot for a feminine hygiene product and directed (by Luis Mandoki) with the skill of an evangelist herding rubes into the tent. Significantly, Warner Bros. is releasing the movie before Nicholas Sparks's syrupy bestseller, from which the film descends, has cooled off. Sparks, author of the 1996 pop hit The Notebook and reigning boy wonder of romance fiction, sent his manuscript for Message in a Bottle to his publisher only nine months ago; since then it has sold nearly a million copies and has become the Love Story -- or The Bridges of Madison County -- of the moment.

A movie version with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn entwined on a beach bathed in the pink and mauve glow of sunset will likely just enhance the book's sales. He's as wooden as ever, and she's all big-eyed wonder. But they look awfully nice together. Certainly director Mandoki knows this thrumming-on-the-heartstrings business better than most. He previously wrapped romance around cerebral palsy in Gaby: A True Story (1987) and infused alcoholism with marital devotion in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994). For Message he has employed composer Gabriel Yared, who buoys up the proceedings with a sea of violins.

Now for a closer look at this Tender, Poignant, Beautiful, Sensitive thing. Let me ask you this: If you were a stoic sailboat builder (romantic trade, no?) named Garret Blake (Costner) and your beloved painter wife (another romantic trade, no?) died of an unspecified illness, would you start typing mawkish "Dear Catherine" letters to her, stuffing them into bottles and dropping them into the heaving deep? And if you were a divorced single mom named Theresa Osborne (Wright Penn) and you found one of the note-stuffed bottles in the sand on Cape Cod, would you fall, sight unseen, for the guy who wrote them? Could you go for anyone who comes up with coinages such as "the blue Atlantic mystery" and "you were my true north?"

Theresa does. From the offices of the Chicago Tribune (refashioned on an L.A. sound stage) she traipses off to the Outer Banks of North Carolina (shot on the beaches of Maine) in search of a romantic mystery. She finds romance instead. Shy, strapping Garret, a handsome salt of few words, is ruggedly done up in turtlenecks, slickers and cargo pants from the L.L. Bean catalog. While not pining for dead Catherine, he works up a glamorous sweat restoring a graceful 40-foot schooner. He also has a nice supply of good red Burgundy laid in at his weather-beaten dream of a beach house. And the little fishing village where he lives, as if you didn't know, is postcard-perfect, swathed in gauzy rainbows and the twinkle of lighthouses.

What more could a lonely newspaper researcher from Chicago ask for? How about the prospect of Paul Newman -- handsome face seamed with wisdom now, peering out from under the brim of a slouch hat -- as your future father-in-law?

Too bad things don't quite work out. When he's not playing tentative kissy-face with Theresa, poor Garret wanders around in a funk. He stares lovingly at Catherine's paintings: a sailboat encased in red fog, a dewy-eyed girl clasping a bouquet. Everybody in the movie keeps talking about what masterpieces these are, but don't be surprised that they look like leftovers from a flea market. If Garret had any sense, he'd stick them in wine bottles and dump them in the bay. Instead, he conducts a distracting feud with Catherine's family (notably, her brother, played by John Savage) over ownership of the canvases. Only in the end does he give them up, along with his grief.

"You choose," dad tells son as he finally faces up to his romantic quandary. "Yesterday or tomorrow. Pick one and stick with it. And I'll shut up."

Actually, that's the best news we get in this entire picture. Before a bogus final tragedy strikes the principals, the prospect that Newman, one of our most distinguished actors, can finally recede from this saccharine and manipulative bowl of mush is most welcome.

Message in a Bottle.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Luis Mandoki. With Kevin Costner, Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman.

 
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